Church Settles Abuse Lawsuit
Ex-Union City Priest Now at Berkeley Church; Accuser Wins $600,000

By Jonathan Jones
The Argus [Oakland CA]
August 10, 2005

Less than three months after the Diocese of Oakland found "insufficient evidence" to support allegations of sexual abuse against a former Union City priest, the diocese agreed to pay $600,000 to the plaintiff who accused him, according to attorneys involved in the case. The Diocese of Oakland agreed to settle the case against the Rev. George Crespin last week as part of a $56.4 million "global settlement" with victims of childhood sexual abuse by priests.

Despite the settlement, church officials said this week that the 69-year-old Crespin, who is now in retirement, is permitted to celebrate Mass and hear confessions at St. Joseph the Worker Church in Berkeley, where he has lived and worked for 24 years.

"The decision was made when the person decided to go ahead and sue after the diocese and a third party determined there was insufficient evidence to remove Father Crespin," said the Rev. Mark Wiesner, a diocese spokesman. "The bishop was interested in reaching a global settlement. ... It wasimportant to settle these cases for the victims."

But Wiesner added that the $600,000 settlement did not necessarily correspond to the severity or the credibility of the allegations against Crespin.

"Maybe that person had one dynamite attorney," he said.

Hayward attorney Rick Simons, who served as lead counsel for the victims, said his client's allegations against Crespin were analyzed by a mental health expert who certified their veracity under penalty of perjury before the case was filed.

"I believe that the allegations brought against the defendant were true," Simons said. "If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't have accepted the case."

In the lawsuit, Crespin was accused of molesting a boy

30 years ago when he worked at Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Union City.

Attempts to reach Crespin on Monday and Tuesday were unsuccessful. A message left on his voice mail Tuesday said he would not be returning to the church until Aug. 17.

Simons said his client alleged he was a troubled teenager who had been involved in drugs and crime in the mid-1970s when Crespin offered to help by taking custody of the boy and allowing him to stay at the rectory, or priests' residence, at Our Lady of the Rosary.

In exchange, Simons said, his client alleged he had to have "extensive sexual contact" with Crespin and that he was threatened with being returned to Juvenile Hall or sent to live on the streets if he did not comply.

In addition, Simons said his client alleged that convicted pedophile priest Stephen Kiesle, who also was a priest at Our Lady of the Rosary at the time of the alleged incidents, was aware of the sexual conduct.

Kiesle now is serving a six-year prison sentence for molesting a young girl at his Truckee vacation home. He also was convicted in 1978 of molesting two boys while working at Our Lady of the Rosary.

In a telephone interview last month, Bishop Allen Vigneron declined to comment specifically on his May 21 decision to allow Crespin to return to active ministry.

But he reiterated his support for the review board, a panel appointed by the diocese — consisting of nonclergy, a diocese representative and at least one victim of abuse — that determined there was insufficient evidence to support the allegations.

"The allegations are received and investigated by the review board," Vigneron said. "When the board recommends that the charges cannot be substantiated, we restore that person to active ministry."

Terrie Light, regional director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, and Dan McNevin, a SNAP member, said their organization does not support the diocese's decision to return Crespin to active ministry.

"I think the amount of the settlement speaks for itself," said McNevin, who grew up in the Niles district of Fremont. "I don't understand how a decision to put him back into the ministry is prudent, given the allegations and the cost of the settlement to the diocese."

After the allegations emerged this year, Crespin read a letter to parishioners in Berkeley denying the accusations. He then submitted his resignation as head pastor and retired.

"The accusation is not true," his statement read. "I deny it. Since I know the person making the accusation, I am firmly convinced that this is being done to get money from the church."

Afterward, local SNAP members objected to a Feb. 21 article regarding the allegations in The Catholic Voice, a diocese publication. The group also objected to Crespin's public comments, saying his statements had created hostility toward the accuser and violated the church's own policy of protecting victims of sexual abuse.

Crespin, who has served as chancellor and vicar general for the diocese, also has been involved in other sexual abuse litigation against the church.

During a March civil trial in which two former Antioch altar boys accused the diocese of failing to protect them from a pedophile priest, the Rev. Robert Ponciroli, Crespin admitted in a videotaped deposition that, as the diocese's former personnel director, "it wasn't our practice" to contact police about sexual abuse allegations.

The diocese's settlements follow a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down California's law allowing the criminal prosecution of accused child molesters within a year after the abuse is reported to police, no matter how long after the crime was committed.

The court said it is unconstitutional to apply the law retroactively to criminally prosecute child molesters for crimes they committed more than six years before the law went into effect in 1994.

The Diocese of Oakland serves more than 500,000 Catholics in the East Bay and includes 86 parishes in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.