Woman Says Trust Shattered by Sexual Abuse; She Says Pastor Molested Her, Church Officials Protected Him

By Felisa Cardona
San Bernardino Sun
August 26, 2002

He told her that she was special, that she was the first and only one and what they would do would be their little secret.

Nicki Rister was 17 years old in 1972 when a trusted Catholic priest, Patrick J. O'Keeffe, took away her innocence, she says. In connection with the case, O'Keeffe last month was charged with 15 felony counts of oral copulation with a minor. Rister did not disclose the details of her sexual contact with O'Keeffe, who was granted the title monsignor in the early 1990s. She said, however, that he sexually abused her while she served as a typist for him at St. Adelaide Catholic Church in Highland 30 years ago.

"When you are raised such a strict Catholic as I was, you never, ever doubt what a priest says,' said Rister, now 47 and living in Colorado.

After her mother died, Rister's own father was ordained a priest in the late 1980s.

"You pour all of your heart out to them,' she said. "You know that they are one of God's chosen and that you can trust them to the very end of your life.'

Rister is yet another purported victim who has come forward publicly with details of sexual abuse in the Diocese of San Bernardino.

Law enforcement officials are barred by law from naming victims of a sexual assault, but the Diocese of San Bernardino says Rister is the woman who reported O'Keeffe.

Another priest, the Rev. Paul Shanley, who served in the diocese in the early 1990s, faces trial on felony charges of molesting boys in the Boston Archdiocese.

A Big Bear Lake man, Kevin English, has accused Shanley of sexually abusing him when he was 17-years-old. English, now 30, says he met the priest while Shanley was filling in at St. Anne Catholic Church in San Bernardino.

Rister said that she continues to fight "a big, black wad of shame and guilt' for the things she says O'Keeffe did to her.

Authorities issued an arrest warrant for the 67-year-old O'Keeffe on July 18. His whereabouts are unknown.

O'Keeffe's last known address was in Laguna Niguel. He is a native of Ireland.

Rister said she met O'Keeffe shortly after her family moved to San Bernardino from Flagstaff, Ariz.

She spent the last half of her senior year at Aquinas High School and had few friends because she was new, she said.

Her mother suggested she sing in the church choir to get to know people.

Rister said O'Keeffe asked if she would be willing to help him by typing up hymns for him in the late afternoons.

"After school and after dinner, I would go over there and do typing in the office, and that's where it started,' she said. "I thought that he was a very nice, honest person that was just trying to help me get out of the house and meet people.'

Rister does not want to jeopardize the sheriff's investigation of O'Keeffe, so she is not discussing the details of the sexual contact.

Rister and San Bernardino diocesan officials agree that the matter was not handled correctly when she first reported the alleged abuse in 1989.

Bishop Phillip F. Straling, who headed the diocese from 1978 to 1995, handled the complaint internally but did not report anything to police, said the Rev. Howard Lincoln, spokesman for the diocese.

Straling is now a bishop of the Diocese of Reno, Nev., and could not be reached for comment. Reno officials said Straling is on vacation until after the Labor Day holiday.

Rister said her mother died without knowing about O'Keeffe's alleged indiscretions, and she didn't tell her father until 1992 after he was already a priest himself.

"My father turned his back on me and chose the church over me,' Rister said. "Pat had been his best friend, and maybe he didn't think Pat would do something like that. That hurt an awful lot, and for years we didn't talk.'

Before her father died in April, Rister decided to report O'Keeffe to the Florida Bishops Conference after reading an article about the church scandals with a hot line to call. That was in March.

Her complaint was forwarded to the Diocese of San Bernardino.

Rister not only blames O'Keeffe for violating her trust, she also blames the diocese. She says they dragged their feet and protected O'Keeffe after she reported the allegations in March.

"He should be treated the same as any other man that has done something like this,' Rister said. "Just because they are priests doesn't mean they are exempt from the law. If Pat had been a regular teacher in school, the next day he would have been arrested. Instead, he was protected and shielded by the church.'

The diocese purchased a plane ticket so Rister could fly to San Bernardino in May to be interviewed by the Rev. Gerald Lopez, who oversees priest personnel matters for the diocese.

"They took four weeks to put my interview on paper, and then it was so poorly done that I redid it in two hours and sent it back,' Rister said.

"They allowed Pat to delay doing his interview for weeks for one excuse or another. Then he refused to do it at all and wrote a letter on June 17 and said he was leaving the country for an extended vacation with his brother.'

Rister said her interview should have never been shown to O'Keeffe and that the diocese should have immediately turned him in to the police before wasting time interviewing him.

She says she called the Sheriff's Department and informed them of her allegations first. Sgt. Jack Trotter said that's true, but that the diocese also reported O'Keeffe after she did in April.

"Basic fairness mandates that a priest is informed if an allegation has been made or a police report filed,' Lincoln said. "How would you feel if a business you worked for filed a police report about you? Wouldn't you like to know about it?'

Under new guidelines established during a meeting of the nation's Catholic bishops in Dallas this year, O'Keeffe is a candidate for laicization, or being defrocked.

Diocesan officials said they have to interview him about the allegations before that process could get under way, Lincoln said.

But Rister said there was a delay, and it gave O'Keeffe plenty of time to leave the school he was working at in Laguna Niguel and possibly leave the country to escape prosecution.

"We are fully cooperating with the authorities and are not and have not remotely protected Pat O'Keeffe nor have we provided an environment where he could leave or hide,' Lincoln said.

"When we found out about the allegations we contacted St. Anne's School in Laguna Niguel and he was placed on administrative leave. The police went to St. Anne's looking for him four weeks ago.'

O'Keeffe was working as director of religious education at St. Anne, a nondenominational, private elementary and middle school.

Lincoln said the diocese's policy is to report any reasonable, credible allegation of sexual abuse, such as Rister's, to the police immediately.

"We filed the police report before we interviewed her in person in April,' Lincoln said. "When she first contacted us in March, we told her to contact the police.'

Rister said her experience with O'Keeffe and the diocese has turned her off to the Catholic Church.

"After it was over, I quit going to church, and I never saw him again after that,' she said. "I don't trust priests at all. Every time I look at one, I wonder who he's got hiding in the back.'

Rister said she hates the fact that the relationship with her father soured because she told him about O'Keeffe.

"I absolutely lost my dad over it, but my dad was very much into the church,' she said. "He was more Catholic than he was father.'

Rister says her hope is that O'Keeffe is caught so nobody else will go through what she went through.

"Pat needs to get some help. He really does. I don't think he realizes the problems that he has caused.'

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