Accused Catholic Priest Returns to Parish: Rev. Chris Berbena Back at Walnut Creek Church

By Barbara Grady
Trading Markets
March 1, 2008

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland is reinstating a priest once accused of sexual misconduct with a minor after an investigation found the allegation could not be substantiated, the diocese said.

The Rev. Chris Berbena will return to St. John Vianney Roman Catholic Church in Walnut Creek where he had been in ministry as a parochial vicar before the diocese removed him in 2004. That year, his name appeared on a list of priests accused of sexual misconduct in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The list, posted on the archdiocese Web site, cited him as accused of a single incident in 1980.

But the Oakland Diocese Review Board began an investigation and could not find any evidence an incident occurred. It returned Berbena to ministry, only to again remove him in 2006, when he became part of a settlement reached by the Franciscan Order and plaintiffs alleging misconduct by 10 Franciscan priests in the Los Angeles area. The priests in the settlement did not admit to guilt, or deny it, but the formal accusation led the Oakland Diocese to reopen its investigation.

This week, Oakland Bishop Allen Vigneron said a three-year effort by the diocese review board to ascertain if the incident had happened did not produce evidence against Berbena, and the board recommended he be returned to ministry.

"I respect the work of the review board and I accept their recommendation," the bishop said in a statement. "We cannot forget that our responsibility is to be vigilant in the

protection of our children."

Berbena could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Dorothy Leven, a 17-year member of the parish, said she was pleased to have Berbena back and believes the accusations against him were false.

"We never really, really believed that he was guilty," she said. "We thought the investigation was very thorough, and we are just happy that he can continue."

Andy Leven, a recent member of the parish council, said the parish was surprised when the accusations surfaced and is pleased Berbena can return to work.

"No one ever questioned his actions while he was at St. John Vianney," Andy Leven said. "It was a really big surprise.

However, an advocate for abuse victims said the diocese, and the Roman Catholic church generally, gives up too easily in these cases, because there is a shortage of priests.

"I think it is a disgrace, an utter disgrace," said Joey Piscitelli, Northwest director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

"It's because of a shortage of priests," he continued. "They said if we had to remove every priest that has some kind of scar on his record we wouldn't have anyone to put in any positions."

Staff writer Paul T. Rosynsky contributed to this report.

Contact Barbara Grady at or 510-208-6427.


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