Church Aims to Shed Light on Sex Abuse
Community Meeting Opens Discussion on Priest Misconduct, Diocese Role

By Rob Dennis
The Argus [Fremont CA]
April 11, 2005

FREMONT A meeting about priest sexual abuse Sunday night began with a prayer and ended with a message: Shine a light on it.

"Child abuse thrives in secrecy," said Diane Swirsky, a clinical psychologist and trauma specialist. "Open the door, turn the light on, listen to your kids, talk to your kids, make sure kids have some place to go where they'll be believed."

More than 50 community members gathered for the meeting in the Corpus Christi Parish Center to discuss the priest abuse crisis that has swept the country and touched their community.

Even the center itself is a reminder of the issue. It was dedicated to the Rev. James Clark until his name was removed last year after three former altar boys accused the former pastor of molesting them.

Swirsky said the trauma of sexual abuse can be exacerbated when the perpetrator is a trusted figure, such as a parish priest.

"If someone is abused by a clergy member, you can imagine what happens to their relationship with the church, their relationship with God," she said.

"Here this child is in this impossible situation. This person who was so trusted and loved was doing them harm."

Also speaking at the meeting was Sister Barbara Flannery, the chancellor of the Diocese of Oakland who has spearheaded its reaction to the priest abuse scandal.

"We will investigate every allegation that comes forward that has any semblance of truth," she said.

Terrie Light, a member of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, agreed that the Diocese of Oakland has taken a proactive stance on the issue in the past couple of years. However, that is not the case in many other dioceses and orders in the Bay Area and throughout the country, she said. "Each bishop runs his diocese as a corporation, the way he wishes to," she said.

The Rev. Stephan Kappler, pastor of the church, said the hierarchy still has failed to come to grips fully with the crisis.

"The church to this day has not found, really, sufficient courage to bring things into the open," he said.

The meeting Sunday came a little more than a week before the leader of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland is scheduled to apologize at Corpus Christi for Clark's sexual misconduct.

Bishop Allen Vigneron will express his regrets next Monday to the victims of Clark, who served at Corpus Christi from 1965 to 1984. Clark died in 1989.

"I think it's a good thing that the diocese has elected to do this," said Dan McNevin, one of three former Corpus Christi altar boys who have named Clark in suits against the diocese. "It's a healthy thing for the parish to experience. It will ultimately bring out more truth, more emotion."

Clark is one of six former Fremont and Union City priests named in some of the dozens of lawsuits against the diocese part of about 160 Northern California cases designated "Clergy III." Negotiations for a mass settlement are ongoing.

McNevin, 45, says he was abused beginning about age 12, after Clark invited him to answer telephones in the parish office.

The other two plaintiffs were not named in the lawsuits. One of them, who says he was abused by Clark from 1970 to 1980, suffered a mental breakdown, and, using a serrated fishing knife, sawed his hand off above the thumb. He remains institutionalized.

Corpus Christi was rocked by the accusations, which some former parishioners refused to believe. Still, after then-pastor Tim Stiers met with McNevin in March 2004, he had Clark's name removed from the parish center that had been dedicated to him since it was completed in 1969.

Next Monday's apology service will be Vigneron's second in Fremont as part of 14 being carried out in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. In June 2004, he apologized to about 60 people at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, where three other accused priests served.

Former priests Stephen Kiesle, Robert Freitas and Donald Broderson, all accused of child molestation in the 1970s, served at Santa Paula Parish or St. Leonard's Parish before the two merged to become Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Vigneron apologized not only for their acts but also for the failure of diocese leaders to acknowledge the abuse and remove the priests.

Court records and depositions have revealed similar concerns about Clark, whom diocese leaders knew to be on probation for a felony sex crime when he was promoted to serve as pastor of Corpus Christi.

Another apology service is slated for May 10 at Holy Spirit Church, where the late Monsignor Vincent Breen was accused of abusing young girls. Breen served at Holy Spirit from 1953 to 1982. He died in 1986.

The sixth former local priest, George Crespin, served with Breen at Holy Spirit from 1962 to 1963. He later served at Our Lady of the Rosary in Union City, where he is accused of molesting a boy in the mid-1970s, according to court records.