Group Demands Bishop Suspend Himself

By Jane Gargas
Yakima Herald-Republic
April 4, 2008

YAKIMA -- A national support group for clergy sex abuse victims on Thursday urged Bishop Carlos Sevilla of the Catholic Diocese of Yakima to suspend himself without pay for at least a month for his "reckless and deceitful actions."

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) sent a letter to Sevilla, calling on him to punish himself for the way he handled the case of Juan Jose Gonzlez Rios, a diocese employee under criminal investigation for allegedly viewing child pornography.

It's the first time in SNAP's history that it has urged a bishop to suspend himself.

Sevilla responded to SNAP's letter by saying that a leave of absence isn't practical due to his responsibilities in the diocese.

"I would like to thank SNAP for their concern for the healing of victims of sexual abuse and for the protection of children and youth, both of which are very important to me as well," Sevilla said in a news release. "I have already taken full responsibility for my serious error in judgment in hiring Mr. Gonzlez and the lack of proper follow-up."

Because each diocese is an independent entity, bishops report to the Vatican as their authority, and oversight for their actions comes from Rome.

Sevilla hired Gonzlez in April 2003 to work at the St. Peter Retreat Center in Cowiche. Two months earlier, Gonzlez had been dismissed from a seminary in Oregon because of pornography allegedly found on his computer. He was studying to be a priest.

Sevilla said he hired Gonzlez, who is 37, because he viewed the alleged violation as an isolated episode. Gonzlez also had longtime ties to the Cowiche area; he came to the Yakima Valley from Mexico with his family when he was in his early 20s.

The matter came to light March 19 after Gonzlez was stopped in Tieton for a traffic violation, and the police officer discovered that a warrant for Gonzlez's arrest had been issued in Oregon in 2005.

Sevilla held a news conference Tuesday, admitting he had given Gonzlez a job knowing the allegations of child pornography but had failed to inform pastors and church employees in Cowiche about those charges. Nor did Sevilla tell the Diocesan Lay Advisory Board, which advises the bishop about matters pertaining to the sexual abuse of minors.

Although Sevilla said Gonzlez was hired to deal with adults, his duties eventually included teaching youth classes in Cowiche and at Holy Redeemer Parish in Yakima. The bishop said he recently learned that Gonzlez was teaching youth.

During Tuesday's news conference, Sevilla admitted he made "a series of errors in judgment."

But according to SNAP, Sevilla's mea culpa is not enough.

David Clohessy, national director of SNAP, said in a telephone interview Thursday that Sevilla's actions were secretive, reckless and deceptive.

"From the beginning, Sevilla shouldn't have hired Gonzlez until the criminal matter had been resolved. But if he wanted to take chances with children's safety, which of course is not ideal, at least be up front about it and inform the police and the parish about the charges."

What Sevilla did was "outlandish," Clohessy said.

In addition to recommending a month's suspension, the group called on the bishop to divulge when he learned that Gonzlez was teaching children and to discipline the person who promoted him to those duties if Sevilla wasn't aware at the time.

SNAP also asked Sevilla to visit the parishes where Gonzlez worked and ask people to contact the police if they have any information about Gonzlez's alleged crimes.

The Rev. Robert Siler, Yakima diocesan chief of staff, said the bishop will soon express his regret about the Gonzlez incident to parishioners at both Cowiche and Holy Redeemer during Masses there.

Siler also said that the diocese is hiring a private investigator to interview members of the youth classes Gonzlez taught.

But a local critic of the church, Robert Fontana of Voice of the Faithful, a group advocating reforms in the Catholic Church, said the church shouldn't be investigating itself.

"SNAP is right on in saying the bishop should remove himself from ministry for a month, and then he should invite an independent investigation of the incident."

Clohessy assailed the bishop for exhibiting what he called a pattern of secrecy, going back to a 2003 incident of a priest here who was investigated for allegedly having images of child pornography on his computer. Father Darell Mitchell was the focus of a criminal investigation, but was never charged. He left Yakima four years ago.

"How could you not link the (Mitchell and Gonzlez) incidents?" asked Clohessy. "Both were investigated for child-related crimes. Bishop Sevilla has repeatedly informed us that he had learned (from the Mitchell case) and reformed, but he knew exactly what he was doing (when he hired Gonzlez.)"

The SNAP letter charges Sevilla divulged his actions concerning Gonzlez only because the bishop knew there would be media scrutiny after the ex-seminarian's arrest.

Chief of staff Siler emphasized that the bishop is taking full responsibility for his actions, concentrating on the mistakes he made and how to prevent them in the future.

Siler also indicated the diocese had received no complaints about Gonzlez.


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