SB Diocese Bans Accused Priest from Church Work

San Bernardino Sun [Rancho Cucamonga CA]
By Will Matthews
April 30, 2003

A retired priest accused but not charged with molesting two young boys three decades ago, will never again serve in active ministry in the San Bernardino Diocese, diocesan officials said Tuesday.

The announcement came a day after diocesan officials learned that the Rev. Peter Covas, who served as pastor of St. Peter and St. Paul Catholic Church in Rancho Cucamonga from 1992 until his retirement last year, had twice been arrested in the 1980s for public sexual misconduct.

In a private meeting with Bishop Gerald Barnes om Tuesday, Covas said he would not seek reinstatement to active ministry, diocesan officials said.

"Recent developments brought Father Covas to the conclusion that for his own good and for the good of the church, he would continue with his retirement and no longer be involved in ministry," said the Rev. Howard Lincoln, spokesman for the diocese.

"Bishop Barnes appreciates and concurs with Father Covas' decision and feels it is in the best interest of the diocese and everyone involved," Lincoln said.

Covas did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Covas retired from active ministry early last year and was placed on administrative leave by the diocese after diocesan officials turned over to police an allegation that he had engaged in an intimate sexual relationship with a 14-year-old boy in 1974 that spanned more than a decade.

Parishioners at St. Peter and St. Paul have clamored for Covas' reinstatement to active ministry since the San Bernardino County District Attorney's Office said earlier this month that there was not enough credible evidence to warrant prosecuting the priest.

Peter Scalisi, Covas' attorney, has said Covas had wanted to minister in limited capacities in the future.

"I am disappointed and I imagine that (Father Covas) is disappointed," Scalisi said Tuesday. "He has a tremendous amount to offer. It is his sincere desire to teach Bible study again. He is an outstanding teacher of the Bible, and his potential students would benefit greatly from him being allowed to teach Bible study. It is really their loss."

Diocesan officials had refused until Tuesday to publicly comment on the district attorney's decision not to prosecute Covas, a day after they learned of his criminal history.

"Father Covas has decided to enjoy his retirement and no longer be involved in public ministry," Lincoln said. "Our diocese wishes to express its appreciation to all who have supported Father Covas. We are also grateful to law enforcement for helping us to resolve this matter. The diocese is sorry for the pain that this matter has caused everyone involved."

According to a San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department report, Covas was arrested June 4, 1987, after masturbating in a Fontana adult bookstore.

According to the report, an undercover reserve deputy, acting as part of the Sheriff Department's Vice-Narcotics Division, witnessed Covas masturbating in a video booth in the Fontana arcade while watching a video.

Covas was taken into custody after he left the arcade and after a marked patrol car made a traffic stop of Covas, according to the report.

In a separate incident, Covas pleaded no contest in December 1988 to charges of disorderly and lewd conduct in public, according to Los Angeles County Superior Court records obtained by The Sun.

The court records show that Covas spent two days in jail, was sentenced to two years of probation and was fined $211.50 for the November 1988 incident.

Lincoln said Tuesday that the diocese was unaware of the two incidents until this week.

"Until contacted by the press, neither the bishop nor anyone in the bishop's office knew anything about the 1987 or the 1988 incidents," Lincoln said.

But the court records show that Covas was represented in 1988 by Wilfrid C. "Bill" Lemann, a prominent San Bernardino attorney who has represented the diocese since 1978.

Lemann did not return a phone call seeking comment Tuesday, but Lincoln said that at that time, diocesan policy did not prohibit Lemann from representing an active priest in a personal matter and that Lemann felt an obligation to assist Covas because of a decades-long personal friendship the two shared.

"At the time of the 1988 allegations, Father Covas was also Bill Lemann's pastor at (Our Lady of the Rosary Cathedral) in San Bernardino," Lincoln said. "Bill felt an obligation to him."

Lincoln said Tuesday that to avoid potential conflicts of interest, a 1990 change in diocesan policy prohibits diocesan attorneys from representing church staff in personal matters.

"Now, the policies of our diocese would prohibit Bill from representing Father Covas as he did in the 1988 court hearing," Lincoln said. "However, 15 years ago, it would have been perfectly natural for Father Covas to ask Mr. Lemann to represent him in this misdemeanor."

Lincoln said Lemann was unaware in 1988 of Covas' 1987 arrest, but that Lemann told Bishop Philip Straling, then head of the diocese, of Covas' 1988 conviction.

Straling did not make any note of the incident in any diocesan files or any files regarding Covas, Lincoln said.

"The previous administration dealt with these matters differently than we would today," Lincoln said. "Hindsight is great for 20-20 vision, but I think what is important is what we are doing now and in the future."

In May 2002, as part of a sweeping set of requirements aimed at restoring the public's trust in Roman Catholic clergy, diocesan officials began requiring that all of the diocese's priests be fingerprinted before serving in any ministerial capacity.

Had that policy been implemented earlier, Lincoln said, Covas' arrests would not have gone undetected.

"Had he been fingerprinted, then we would have known of these two incidents involving Father Covas and immediate action would have been taken," Lincoln said.

"The reason we implemented the fingerprint policy was to ensure our commitment to our people and most especially to the children and the young."


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