Clergy Sex Abuse Scandal Drags On, with No End in Sight

By Tom Kisken
Ventura County Star [California]
December 7, 2003

Victims are accusing retired and removed Southern California priests of molesting them as children in several hundred lawsuits filed over the past year. Police have a warrant out for a former cleric charged with abusing two boys in Santa Paula more than 10 years ago.

And yet two years after allegations of pedophile priests being transferred from parish to parish first rocked the Catholic church, the scandal seems like old news to some people.

Most of the names and many of accusations have been heard before. Some Catholics point to existing and reinforced policies for protecting children, also citing the accused priests forced out of ministry as proof the crises have been addressed.

"We think it happened. We think it's regrettable. We're carrying on," said Trudy Hayes, organist at Santa Clara Church in Oxnard, one of several Ventura County parishes that have been hit by allegations. "We're just going on."

The reaction makes Manny Vega of Oxnard think of how the shock that greeted the first battles in Iraq diminished as the casualties continued. No matter how tragic an event, people get used to it.

"I guess we all get desensitized. It's part of being human," Vega said. He is suing the Rev. Fidencio Silva for allegedly molesting him more than 20 years ago when he was an altar boy at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Oxnard.

No resolution near

Last December, victims talked wistfully about how their cases could be close to resolution in a year. That hasn't happened. Some observers don't expect substantial movement until after Dec. 31, the deadline of a one-year state law that allowed people to file lawsuits even if the statute of limitations had expired.

A lawyer for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles said he has been told that as many as 400 cases against former priests and the archdiocese will have been filed by the end of the year.

Virtually all of Southern California's lawsuits are being placed in a court-mandated mediation process. Lawyers for plaintiffs and defendants are exchanging records and giving mixed reviews of the other side's willingness to cooperate. In the cases where mediation doesn't work, one attorney predicted trials could begin late in 2004.

On the criminal side, Santa Paula police are searching for a former priest who allegedly molested two boys from 1988 to 1993. Charges against Carlos Rene Rodriguez, 48, were filed in Ventura County Superior Court on July 31, along with an arrest warrant.

Neither police nor prosecutors will comment on the case except to say the search is continuing. According to the warrant request, the alleged Santa Paula victims are brothers whose parents met Rodriguez through his work with a marriage encounter group.

Rodriguez, then a member of the Vincentian Fathers order, served at a retreat in Santa Barbara for about five years before leaving the priesthood in 1993. He was charged more than a year ago with a molestation in Los Angeles in the 1980s. The case was dropped after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against a state law that allowed prosecutors to pursue allegations of decades-old molestation.

Ventura County prosecutors assert the ruling still allows them to pursue allegations from 1988 on, though some observers expect the Rodriguez timetable will be argued in court.

Don Steier, a Los Angeles lawyer working with the former priest on civil litigation, said he didn't know where his client was and hadn't been told police were looking for him.

From criminal to civil courts

If momentum in the scandal has slowed over the past year, many people point to the Supreme Court ruling as the reason. Courts throughout the state were forced to toss out cases against former priests, as well as many others accused and convicted of molestation. In Southern California, charges were dropped against several men who once served at parishes or ministries in Ventura County, including Michael Wempe, George Miller, Carl Sutphin, George Neville Rucker and Fidencio Silva.

Only Wempe has been arrested again. The former priest served at several parishes in and around Ventura County from 1969 to 1987. He is now accused of molestation during the 1990s, when he was serving as a chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He pleaded not guilty in Los Angeles Superior Court and is awaiting a preliminary hearing.

But if criminal courts once seemed to be the stage on which the clergy abuse story would be told in California, that burden has shifted. National surveys to be released in January and February are expected to give information on whether dioceses have effectively protected children, as well as detailing the number of clergy sex abuse accusations over the past 50 years and the money paid out in settlements.

Some lawyers and victims think the heart of the scandal will be exposed through Archdiocese of Los Angeles personnel records. Judges are still in the process of ruling exactly what information will be given to plaintiffs suing priests and the archdiocese.

J. Michael Hennigan, a lawyer with the archdiocese, said personnel files will never be totally bared in public. But he predicted information relevant to the scandal will be released, much of it within the next six months.

He said the files won't show that church leaders tried to hide molestation by transferring accused priests from one parish to another.

What will records show?

Such a conspiracy is exactly what Lee Bashforth thinks the records would prove, though he worries some of the most telling documents may be removed by archdiocese officials.

"I think it will prove ... that there has been a Vatican-endorsed policy of coverup and obstruction of justice," said Bashforth, who grew up in the Conejo Valley and alleges he was molested by Wempe.

Tim Hale, a Santa Barbara lawyer who represents several alleged victims who have filed lawsuits, doesn't expect the church to release all its records. But he thinks the scandal will be revealed when archdiocese leaders give depositions in the cases that can't be mediated.

"They will really have their feet to the fire," he said, predicting depositions will be taken one day and released to the public the next. "The lies are going to be exposed or the horrible truths will be exposed."

For now, Hale and other lawyers are focused on meeting the Dec. 31 deadline for filing lawsuits and encouraging abuse victims to step forward.

State Sen. Joe Dunn, D-Santa Ana, said he will decide early next year whether to ask fellow legislators to extend the moratorium on the statute of limitations. Dunn, a lawyer who has represented clergy abuse victims, is certain the scandal will continue to unfold across the world.

"I believe we're only at the tip of the iceberg," he said.

In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, officials say what they've been saying for two years: Almost all of the allegations involve incidents from before 1985. Policies that came in the late 1980s and have since been strengthened are effective.

Victims and their attorneys don't believe the scandal has altered the church. But Hennigan said the change is forever.

"We're embarrassed by this," he said. "We're ashamed of it. We want it to never reoccur."

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