Bishop Apologizes to Parishioners throughout Diocese

By Jane Gargas
Yakima Herald-Republic
April 8, 2008

YAKIMA — Priests in 40 Catholic parishes spanning Central Washington were asked to read a letter of apology from Bishop Carlos Sevilla this weekend.

Sevilla personally delivered an apology to parishioners Sunday at St. Juan Diego Catholic Church in Cowiche, where he hired an ex-seminarian, Juan Jose Gonzlez Rios, to work in the parish five years ago despite knowing Gonzlez was under investigation for viewing child pornography in Oregon.

Sevilla told Cowiche parishioners he was sorry for how he had handled the case. Rarely, if ever, has a bishop's personal apology been read aloud in all the parishes of the Catholic Diocese of Yakima.

"I respectfully ask your forgiveness for my errors and for the embarrassment this may cause you, and your forgiveness for any damage this may cause to the work of the Church in our Diocese," he said in the letter read at the churches.

"Please pray for me, for the former seminarian who has now been arrested to face these charges, and for continued healing and forgiveness for all those who suffer from childhood sexual abuse," the letter concluded.

Outside the Cowiche church Sunday morning, Gonzlez's relatives handed out a letter, alleging that Gonzlez, 37, had been sexually abused by a priest who had once served there.

The bishop's apology to parishioners came just days after he went to the media to acknowledge that he had hired Gonzlez, who was arrested last month on an Oregon warrant discovered after he was pulled over for speeding on Summitview Avenue in Tieton. He is being held in Yakima County jail in lieu of $80,000 bail pending an extradition hearing.

Kathy Scott listened to the

letter when it was read during Mass on Saturday evening at Holy Redeemer Church in Yakima, where she has been a longtime parishioner. She said she had been surprised when she heard about Gonzlez's hiring, especially since the bishop knew about the ex-seminarian's alleged viewing of child pornography.

But Scott said, "I still stand behind the bishop."

At least one parishioner in Cowiche said she appreciated that Sevilla traveled to the church to apologize personally. Patricia Williams, who has been attending the Cowiche church since its founding more than 40 years ago, said the bishop seemed sincere.

Even as Sevilla sought to make amends, Gonzlez's family was distributing their own letter alleging that Gonzlez was a victim of sexual abuse by a Cowiche priest who has since left the state.

The Gonzlez family said the sexual misconduct occurred before he went into the seminary about nine years ago, and that he also was "exposed to a variety of inappropriate sexual conduct" while studying at the Mount Angel Seminary in Marion County, Oregon.

Further, the family contended that Gonzlez told Sevilla about the sexual misconduct both on the part of the priest and at the seminary.

The Gonzlez family indicated that the alleged sexual misconduct occurred when Gonzlez was in his early 20s. Although the family identified the priest in their letter, the Herald-Republic's policy is to name people only if they have been charged with a crime or lawsuit.

In part, their letter said: "Now is the time to break the silence and the cycle of sexual abuse and abuse of power in this organization."

Gonzlez's sister, Lily Gonzlez, did not return a telephone call seeking more information Monday. A telephone call seeking comment from Sevilla about the allegations of abuse also was not immediately returned.

However, the Rev. Robert Siler, the diocesan chief of staff, said "if an allegation of abuse occurs between adults, the bishop handles it with confidentiality and does not make his findings public unless authorities need to be involved."

When asked if the priest's behavior had been or would be investigated, Siler said that he couldn't comment further.

J.J. Sandlin, Gonzlez's attorney, also alleges abuse, saying that the priest sexually assaulted his client on at least one occasion.

Robert Fontana of Voice of the Faithful, a group seeking reform in the Catholic Church, said the abuse allegation makes the case larger than just missteps by the bishop.

Apologizing to parishioners was a good idea, but didn't go far enough, Fontana said.

"If he were serious, he would order an independent person to investigate the whole story."

Sevilla has acknowledged knowing Gonzlez was under investigation in Oregon, but he didn't inform pastors and church employees in Cowiche about those charges. Nor did he tell the Diocesan Lay Advisory Board, which advises the bishop about matters pertaining to the sexual abuse of minors.

While 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. There are no allegations of wrongdoing by Gonzlez in Cowiche, but the diocese has hired a private investigator to look into his conduct here.

So far, the response to the bishop's letter of apology has been muted in the diocesan office, Siler said. It wasn't read at all churches in the diocese this past weekend, but Siler said he assumed it would be over the next few weeks. The Yakima diocese encompasses 41 parishes and nearly 80,000 Roman Catholics as far north as Wenatchee and as far south as Goldendale.

Williams, the parishioner in Cowiche, said she saw the letter the Gonzlez family passed out at church and finds the controversy disturbing. Williams knows Gonzlez and said "he seemed very nice."

But, she doesn't give credence to the allegations in the letter because she also knows the priest who was named, and she holds him in high regard. "I don't believe there was abuse," she said.

"The whole thing is unsettling for everybody," she added.


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