Dealing with the Demons: Diocese Trying to Restore Trust through Prevention Programs

By Matthew Artz
San Jose Mercury News
April 2, 2008

It was the worst of times for the Diocese of Oakland.

The clergy sexual abuse scandal that first broke in early 2002 had tainted the careers of at least 24 diocesan priests. A year later, the state Legislature extended the statute of limitations involving sexual abuse allegations, inundating the diocese with dozens more lawsuits stretching back decades.

As the scandal raged, the diocese in 2003 started holding seminars aimed at preventing further abuse by priests and lay officials.

Nancy Libby remembers looking out on a class that included several priests, none of whom had any credible allegations against them, but all of whom were tainted by the enormity of the scandal.

"There was a lot of sadness in the room," said Libby, who now runs the diocese's Safe Environment Project. "Nobody wants to be part of a group that did something so heinous."

Dick Folger, a deacon at Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Union City, recalled one three-hour training session in which a woman detailed how a priest sexually abused her when she was 8 years old.

"That SOB, he ought to be ground up into hamburger," Folger said.

During the past five years, child-welfare training has been integrated into church culture.

Under a 2002 edict from the U.S. Council of Bishops, all diocese employees and many volunteers are required to undergo training and submit to fingerprinting, background checks and screenings for Megan's Law violations.

Church officials are under orders to report all allegations to law enforcement officials.

The diocese also has issued strict new conduct protocols.

Adults are told to avoid situations "that place them in a position to be alone with a minor in the church rectory, parish residence, or in a closed room other than a confessional."

Youth group trips need at least two adult chaperones, and offices or classrooms used for pastoral counseling must have a window in the door. Otherwise, the door is to be left open.

The diocese program gets general praise from Catholics interviewed recently, and it appears to be having an effect.

There have been no reported incidents of abuse by priests in the diocese stemming from incidents after 2002, said diocese spokesman the Rev. Mark Wiesner.

Meanwhile, the diocese continues to deal with new allegations of past abuse.

Three priests have been laicized -- removed from their priestly duties -- because of investigations in connection with new allegations of abuse dating to before 2002, Wiesner said.

Six other priests have been removed from public ministry and ordered to live a life of prayer and penance, and six are on administrative leave while allegations against them are reviewed.


Although the sexual abuse scandal involved mainly clergy, nearly everyone associated with the diocese was required to participate in annual trainings.

A separate curriculum was introduced for students, beginning with kindergartners.

Students at St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park -- the nearest training academy for future priests -- have new course work designed to prevent sexual misconduct, according to a seminary employee. Seminary leaders didn't respond to an interview request.

The diocese's initial training sessions, which Folger likened to traffic school, lasted about two to three hours and included presentations from abuse victims.

No one was happy to be there, especially lay officials, many of whom saw the scandal as something that didn't involve them.

"The bigger question was, 'Why do I need to do this?'" said the Rev. Kevin Mullins, pastor of Our Lady of Grace Church in Castro Valley.

"It was a very mixed reaction," Libby said. "People were angry at the church."

Church officials no longer have to attend several hours of sexual abuse prevention training every year.

Training is required once every three years and is done online at The adult program, created in partnership with the firm and open to the public, is supposed to take an hour to complete. However, an disinterested participant can easily navigate it in about 20 minutes.

Participants are instructed how to identify physical, emotional and sexual abuse and how to go about reporting it.

One question asks: Is a mother emotionally abusing her 6-year-old son, who has a bed-wetting problem, when she asks his teachers to tell his classmates that she is making him wear diapers to school for a week?

In another section, participants are asked whether two 17-year-olds engaging in oral sex had broken state law. (They have, since the law considers all oral copulation involving minors to be sexual abuse.)

"I think (the training program) is working very well," said Libby, who didn't think longer, face-to-face sessions would have a stronger effect. "The whole thing is about making sure everyone in the community knows how to respond well."

The ramifications

The Catholic Church has lost more adherents than any other religious faith in the United States, according to a study released last month by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Roughly 10 percent of all Americans are former Catholics, the report found.

Yet parish leaders in the diocese say attendance hasn't dropped since the abuse scandal broke. Folger said he knew of only about five parishioners who had stopped attending Mass at Our Lady of the Rosary, which was home to several abusive priests through the years.

Wiesner, who is pastor at St. Augustine Parish in Oakland, also said attendance has held steady. He recalled just a few parishioners withholding donations in protest.

"When we were in the throes of it, there was a difference (at the parish)," he said. "It was all the talk, all the conversation."

These days, he said, trust has been restored and things are back to normal. "The vast majority of people are aware that it was a few priests who caused a very large problem," he said.

The diocese in 2005 agreed to pay, without admitting guilt, $56 million to the victims of 24 priests. It is using the sale of undeveloped property to help pay the settlement, Wiesner said.

The accused diocesan priests represent about 7.7 percent of the total number who have served in the East Bay since 1950. In all, the accused clergy members represent about 2.6 percent of the total number of priests and members of religious orders who have served in the diocese during the same time period.

After decades of rotating accused priests through different parishes, the diocese now immediately places any official accused of sexual misconduct on administrative leave, Wiesner said.

"Pedophilia wasn't understood to be the mental illness that we know it is now," Wiesner said. "Since we understand it differently, we react differently."

Not all allegations against church officials are sustained or deemed serious enough to defrock priests.

The diocese faced protests last year when it named the Rev. Padraig Greene pastor of St. Augustine and St. Elizabeth Seton Catholic churches in Pleasanton, even though he had been arrested eight years earlier on suspicion of masturbating in a public restroom at an Oakland hills sports center. Charges later were dismissed by the Alameda County District Attorney's Office after Greene agreed to six months of counseling at St. Michael's Center in St. Louis.

"Padraig Greene is living proof that (Oakland) Bishop Allen Vigneron is still promoting sex offenders," said Joey Piscitelli, a member of the Survival Network of those Abused by Priests.

"Nobody made him leave his parish and go to a park to masturbate," he said.

Last year, Wiesner defended Greene, saying that the incident was just one "dark moment" in an otherwise commendable career. "Before that and since that, there have been no other incidents," he told MediaNews.

As for the priests whose accusations of sexual abuse are confirmed, many remain with the diocese in some capacity.

Unless they have been laicized, the priests are eligible for diocese lodging and medical benefits, even though they can't have contact with parishioners.

"We still have an obligation to them," Wiesner said.

Dealing with the past

As a deacon at Our Lady of the Rosary, Folger was well acquainted with Stephen Kiesle and Robert Freitas, two priests who were arrested in 2002 on child sex abuse charges dating back more than two decades.

Kiesle, who was charged with molesting three girls at Fremont's Santa Paula church, and Freitas, who admitted to molesting a 15-year-old boy at Santa Paula, both were freed in 2003 after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a California law extending the statute of limitations in such cases. Kiesle later was convicted and sent to prison for molesting a girl in 1995.

"I was numb to the reality of the charges," Folger said. "No one could believe that -- Bob, good old Bob? It just didn't compute.

"It was hard to comprehend and it was hard to accept," he said. "Should I be angry? Probably. They deceived us. So why am I not mad?

"The best answer to that is if you're without sin, throw the first stone. We all have dark pages in our story."

Folger praised the diocese for dealing with the scandal, but said the parish still wrestles with the legacy of abuse.

In honor of Our Lady's 100th anniversary last year, Folger was part of a team working on a commemorative book. "The question was, do we put Bob Freitas' picture in it?" They did.

"History is history. We can't cover it up with whitewash," Folger said. "We can't blot it out."

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