Popular Priest to Return to Berkeley

Oakland Tribune [Berkeley CA]
Downloaded June 3, 2005

THE faith of many Catholics, especially those in Berkeley, has been strengthened by the decision of the Diocese Review Board to dismiss all charges of sexual abuse against the Rev. George Crespin, pastor of St. Joseph the Worker Church on Addison Street.

Since February, when the popular priest was abruptly removed from celebrating Mass and forced into retirement, it seemed the presumption of innocence did not apply to him or any of the many Roman Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse of minors.

Crespin immediately denied the charges: "The accusations are not true." Nonetheless, he was removed and disappeared from the church premises. I learned later he had gone to the Southwest, where he has friends and relatives.

But his friends in Berkeley and Oakland stood by him.

Many Catholics, like me, kept thinking there must be some of those hundreds of priests who are innocent and will become victims of untrue charges.

Parishioners at St. Joseph were outraged by the treatment of their pastor, and they protested the action at a February meeting with petitions and prayers.

Some accusers from out of the distant past may be the guilty ones, trying to cash in on the "global settlement" the church has set up to pay out to legitimate victims. I realize there are many real victims; in fact, most are deserving. But there are also those who might bear false witness to make a bundle of money, and that would be a despicable act as well.

The decision to dismiss all charges against Crespin was announced by Bishop Allen Vigneron, and Crespin was returned to active ministry May 21. He will remain at St. Joseph the Worker but in retirement as pastor, by his choice.

With the Catholic Church stinging nationally from the awful truths that have emerged, the hierarchy acting under the U.S. Bishops for the Protection of Children and Young People has shown no mercy for those accused of sexual abuse.

But in such matters as this, it can be just as bad to bend too far backward as too far forward. Finding justice is not easy but must be done.

Crespin was accused of sexual abuse that allegedly happened 30 years ago when he was a priest in Union City. He absolutely denied the charge, and it was strongly suggested the accuser was bringing the charges to get some of the settlement money.

The review board, a panel appointed by the diocese and consisting of laypeople and at least one victim of sexual abuse and a diocesan representative, decided there was insufficient evidence to support the allegations.

Crespin was one of the few priests in an active ministry to be removed from his position.

That made me think the civil courts might offer a better chance at justice than the church, considering the constitutional right to the presumption of innocence. I still see no reason why Catholic priests should be treated differently than any other person accused of sexual abuse crimes.

In a letter to the Rev. Jayson Lendeza, who has served as interim pastor since Crespin left, Vigneron said, "The diocesan investigation was done with great care and thoroughness for the review board, and after assessing all available evidence, it found the evidence insufficient to support the allegations."

If anyone deserved a chance to prove his innocence, it was Crespin, who has served in various capacities during his priesthood. For several years, he was the right hand of retired Bishop John Cummins. He also was pastor in several parishes throughout the East Bay. Early in his priesthood, he was assigned to Corpus Christi Church at Park and Leimert boulevards, the parish that serves the Montclair hills.

Before becoming pastor of St. Joseph the Worker after the death of the Rev. Bill O'Donnell in December 2003, Crespin was assistant pastor there.

Since the announcement, Crespin has remained in seclusion but will return June 23.

When it was announced that his name had been cleared at the May 22 Mass at St. Joseph the Worker, parishioners cheered, clapped and cried with joy.