Center of the Storm
Reno's Former Bishop Is Not Accused in Any Sexual Abuse Case, but He Has Been Named As a Key Witness in More Than 150 Lawsuits. What Did He Know about the Activities of the Priests around Him?

By Martha Bellisle
Reno Gazette-Journal [Nevada]
July 30, 2005

Bishop Phillip Straling:
Questions are being raised about how much he might have known about the activities of priests accused of sexual abuse.
* Served as Straling's personal aide while Straling was bishop of San Bernardino.
* Faces felony charges of sexually abusing two teenage altar boys in the 1980s.
* Colleague of Straling's in San Diego.
* Convicted and treated for molesting children. After Rodrigue's conviction, Straling moved him to a parish with a school.
* Key figure in Boston clergy abuse scandal.
* Moved to Straling's diocese in 1990. While working at a parish in Big Bear, Calif., Shanley allegedly molested a young man.

Reno Catholic leader Bishop Phillip Straling, who retired unexpectedly last month, is a key witness in more than 150 lawsuits in Southern California filed against priests accused of molesting children. In some cases, he is accused of negligence for failing to stop the abuse.

And prosecutors last week seized records from Straling's former diocese in San Bernardino looking for information on the religious leader's former aide, Jesus Dominguez, who recently disappeared after being charged with 58 counts of sexual assault.

The lawsuits and lawyers say Straling, while a priest in San Diego and bishop of San Bernardino, might have known that the accused priests were having sex with children but did nothing to stop them. Many believe he played a part in shuffling abusive priests to new parishes where they had access to and sometimes continued to molest children.

After moving to Reno in 1995, Straling transferred at least one accused priest, Robert Buchanan, from San Bernardino to Reno. A 2003 lawsuit claims Buchanan engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior with a teen while working at a school in San Diego. Buchanan, who still lives in Reno, has denied the allegation.

No claims of priests abusing children have been filed against Reno priests since Straling took over, according to a diocese official. One Reno priest, the late Monsignor Robert Bowling, was accused in 11 lawsuits, 10 of which were filed against the Archdiocese of Louisville, Ky., of alleged abuse in the 1960s. The eleventh case involved a Reno woman who said he behaved sexually inappropriately while she was an adult. The Louisville archdiocese settled all 11 cases for $25.7 million in 2003.

Straling is not accused of molesting children but is to be called as a possible witness in the Southern California lawsuits. Some lawsuits accuse him of negligence but don't identify him by name, saying only that the bishop or diocese knew or should have known about the abuse and put a stop to it.

The suits involve some of the most notorious sexual predator clergy in the country, with many convicted of child molestation and some in prison for sex crimes against children.

"Can't comment"
Straling, reached by telephone this week, declined to comment on the lawsuits or allegations concerning any specific priests and referred all questions to San Bernardino.

"I tell you I can't comment on any of those things," Straling said. "I've been away (from San Bernardino) for 10 years and it would be unfair to comment. Everything is being handled down there. I can't comment any further."

He said his early retirement had nothing to do with the legal action. Straling left his post as bishop in June at age 72, three years short of the mandatory retirement age of 75. He said at the time that he did not have the stamina to continue and had planned to retire when he was 70.

At the time of his announced departure, he was praised by many as a good bishop who cared about his parishioners and his priests. One parish worker said Straling would reach out to all people, Catholic or non-Catholic, whenever needed. He also oversaw the Reno diocese during a period of significant expansion, including the construction of four churches and a new campus for Bishop Manogue High School.

Straling, in a 2002 deposition concerning one of his Southern California priests, also denied that his move to Reno when the diocese was created in 1995 was triggered by the increasing number of sexual misconduct allegations made against his San Bernardino diocese.

John Manly, a Costa Mesa, Calif.-based lawyer handling many of these lawsuits, said he is eager to get Straling on the witness stand under oath to ask about the molestation of children by priests with whom Straling worked and sometimes lived, including:

* Jesus Dominguez, who served for a time as Straling's personal aide while Straling was bishop of San Bernardino. Dominguez faces felony charges of sexually abusing two teenage alter boys in the 1980s.

* Anthony Rodrigue, a colleague of Straling's in San Diego who was moved from parish to parish for years as complaints of abuse rolled in. Straling moved him to a parish with a school after Rodrigue had been convicted and treated for molesting children.

* William Kraft, a deceased priest who worked with Straling at a San Diego parish for three years where they lived together in the rectory. Kraft is accused of sexually abusing numerous young boys, sometimes in his bedroom at the rectory.

* Paul Shanley, a key figure in the Boston clergy abuse scandal, was moved to Straling's diocese in 1990. While working at a parish in Big Bear, Calif., Shanley allegedly molested a young man. He was convicted this year on a child rape charge and sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.

When Straling testified concerning another priest in 2002, he was asked whether he knew of any sexual improprieties involving several of these priests and others. Straling said he either did not recall any accusations or had heard some rumors but had seen no concrete evidence.

The Rev. Howard Lincoln, appointed by Straling as spokesman for the Diocese of San Bernardino in 1992, said the bishop was a leader in protecting children.

"Bishop Straling is a holy and gentle man with a kind heart," Lincoln said. "He never knowingly placed children in danger by the placement of a priest. He did not shuffle priests."

California lawsuits

Much of the abuse came to light after the California Legislature passed a law in 2002 that lifted the civil statute of limitation for one year for victims of sexual abuse. It allowed victims to sue institutions or employers who knowingly hired or kept molesters.

Hundreds of suits were filed against dioceses statewide, with the most, more than 500, in Los Angeles County. In preparation for the expected onslaught of lawsuits, a judge ordered all the Southern California complaints consolidated into one court.

Once the yearlong window closed, the judge issued a stay on the process and ordered the sides into mediation. In 2004, Orange County broke from the groups and settled its lawsuits for a record $100 million — the highest clergy abuse settlement ever in the United States and higher than the $85 million settlement in Boston.

That has left about 800 lawsuits in three Southern California dioceses. Straling is a key figure in many of the suits in San Diego and San Bernardino.

The Diocese of San Diego used to include San Bernardino but the two regions were split in 1978. Since most of the allegations claim abuse that occurred before 1978, most of the lawsuits, 140, target San Diego, but include abuse that occurred in San Bernardino parishes. Fourteen lawsuits target the San Bernardino diocese.

Lincoln, with the Diocese of San Bernardino, would not comment except to say the lawsuits are being handled by a coordinating judge in Los Angeles.

Michael Webb, general counsel for the Diocese of San Diego, said they are unable to discuss the allegations while the lawsuits are in mediation.

"It's an ongoing process and one we are actively pursuing," he said.

Early alleged abuse

Straling, the lawyers say, may have been exposed to abusive practices soon after being ordained a priest in San Diego in 1959.

On his second assignment, Straling worked with Rev. William Kraft from 1961-63 at Saint Therese of the Child Jesus parish, according to the San Diego Diocese directory. Kraft, now deceased, was considered one of the most physically and emotionally destructive of all of the pedophile priests in Southern California, said Joelle Casteix, southwest regional director for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

"He violently abused them and threw them away when he was done," Casteix said.

Kraft and Straling lived in the rectory, a ranch-style house with separate bedrooms and offices but a common kitchen area, according to investigator Patrick Wall of Manly's law firm, which is handling a pile of lawsuits involving Kraft.

Kraft brought boys to the rectory, where some of the abuse involved brutal rapes, Wall said. Some of the boys knew Straling, he said.

"Monsignor Kraft always had kids with him, boys," Wall said.

Kraft would groom the boys, build them up, before abusing them, Wall said. Afterward, Kraft would threaten the boys with warnings like, "No one would ever believe you" or "God help you if you accuse a priest," he said.

In one case in about 1969, Kraft hired a 12-year-old boy to mow his grass. After inviting the boy in for a drink, Kraft began fondling him, the lawsuit says. Over the next six months, the boy returned every two weeks and was molested by Kraft, the lawsuit says.

Another lawsuit asserts Kraft befriended a 9-year-old altar boy in about 1971. On a drive home, Kraft began fondling the boy. The molestation escalated and continued until the boy was 14, the lawsuit says.

A woman victim, who now lives in Reno, says in her lawsuit that she was 17 in the early '60s when she became severely ill from rheumatic fever and was hospitalized. On the brink of death, her parents called in Kraft, Wall said. He proceeded to grope her body underneath her hospital gown until she protested, and he left.

During the 2002 deposition, Straling was briefly asked whether he had any information about whether Kraft was accused of any sexual improprieties with children.

"I have no knowledge of any actual accusations, no," Straling told Riverside lawyer William Light.

"Have you heard rumors to that effect?" Light asked.

"Rumors, yes, but nothing factual," Straling replied.

Today, most of Kraft's victims are barely functioning as adults, Wall said. They struggle in relationships and have trouble holding jobs.

Other cases filed date back to the 1950s and extend for 26 years, and involve different parishes, different boys and an occasional girl. Kraft died in 2001 from complications from diabetes.

San Bernardino's bishop

The Diocese of San Bernardino was established in 1978 with Straling serving as its first bishop. In his first year, the diocese directory includes names of about a dozen priests who were later accused in lawsuits or criminally charged with molesting children. More moved to the region from San Diego soon after.

Straling made many of these priests officials in his diocese. the Rev. Edward Lawrence Ball was one.

Straling appointed Ball to the bishop's council as early as 1980 and named him director of the Straling Institution in 1981 and later assigned him to several parishes. Ball held those posts for years.

But during that same period, Ball was sexually abusing young boys. He was convicted twice and served jail and prison time.

In 1992, Ball pleaded guilty to molesting three boys in the late 1980s. He went to jail for about 18 months and was sent to Saint Luke's, a treatment center for pedophiles in Maryland, said Light, the Riverside lawyer.

Once released, more charges were filed, and in 1997, Ball was convicted of more than 30 counts of child molestation, Light said. He spent about three years in prison. In the second case, Ball was found to have sexually abused two young altar boys thousands of times over several years, Light said.

According to the lawsuit, Ball supervised the boys as they did yard work and carpentry, and soon began molesting boys on church grounds and on extended unsupervised trips. He molested one boy from age 11 until 17 and abused the second boy from age 12 until about 18, the suit said.

The Diocese of San Bernardino later settled a civil lawsuit with the boys for $4.2 million. Although the lawsuit claims Straling was negligent for failing to act, nothing came of the claims when the suit was settled.

"We don't know if Straling knew anything, but as leader, all knowledge of employees is imputed to him," Light said.

Ball had two roommates who were there when the boys were spending the night, he said, and the nuns were aware that Ball was taking the boys on out-of-state trips.

Light called Straling to testify under oath in 2002 on the accusations against Ball. Light asked the bishop if he recalled a priest expressing concerns about Ball's relationship with the boys.

"No, I don't recall it," Straling said.

When asked if a nun ever told him that she had concerns about their travels, Straling said no.

Father Tony

Another priest known early on to church officials as a child molester was the Rev. Anthony Rodrigue, a colleague of Straling's in San Diego who later moved to Straling's diocese in San Bernardino.

Despite knowledge of Rodrigue's "sexual immaturity," he was allowed to remain a priest, said his brother, Tom Rodrigue, a retired California tax officer who now lives in Reno.

"He's been a pedophile all his life," Tom Rodrigue said of Anthony, known as Father Tony. "We have him on a lie detector admitting that he was abusing five to six boys every month for 30 years."

Church officials dealt with the abuse and subsequent complaints by moving the priest to new parishes almost annually. The diocese directory shows that Rodrigue went from churches in La Jolla to Lakeside to Encinitas to Calexico to Barstow to Eagle Mountain to El Centro to Poway to Coachella to Ontario during the years 1963 to 1979.

"When he got really bad, they moved him to poorer and poorer parishes, working with farm workers who were sometimes illegals, so they won't go to the police," Tom Rodrigue said. "Many of the people in the poor parishes were devout people and wouldn't want to bring scandal upon the church."

After pleading no contest to molestation charges in 1979 and undergoing treatment, Rodrigue was sent to Straling in San Bernardino as a condition of his probation.

In 1981, Straling sent Rodrigue to a treatment facility for 11 months, and then assigned him to Saint Joseph the Worker parish, which had a grade school, in Loma Linda.

Diocese spokesman Lincoln said Straling was told by officials at the facility that Rodrigue could be released.

"He made every effort to see that he received proper treatment prior to any reassignment," Lincoln said.

Rodrigue was removed from that parish and was sent away for further treatment before being defrocked in 1992. He is serving a 10-year prison sentence for molestation and is scheduled for release in January.

Straling declined to comment when asked about Rodrigue, but in the 2002 deposition, he was asked if he had any knowledge of whether "Rodrigue was accused of having sexual contact with boys or girls."

"I don't recall," Straling replied.

"Do you recall whether there was more than one victim alleged?" Light asked.

"I have no recollection," the bishop said.

"In fact, he was sent to prison for molesting children at Saint George's parish in Ontario, isn't that correct," Light asked.

"I have no knowledge of that," Straling said.