Church Scandal — Adult's Allegations Raise More Questions

By Jane Gargas
Yakima Herald-Republic
May 15, 2008

It's a thorny ethical problem, the kind any Catholic would be loath to confront.

When a priest engages in a sexual relationship with another adult — is it abuse?

Or isn't it?

Bishop Carlos Sevilla
Photo by Andy Sawyer

It's a topic that has been brewing here since the arrest of Juan Jose Gonzlez Rios, a 37-year-old diocesan employee, for allegedly viewing child pornography.

That case became public in March. But the Catholic Diocese of Yakima has been mum about another issue related to Gonzlez — his allegations that a priest here sexually abused him during the 1990s, beginning when he was 21.

Protection of minors is of paramount importance, Bishop Carlos Sevilla has repeatedly stressed.

What should the Church do, however, if the sexual misconduct doesn't include a child? What if the behavior, while not illegal, is deemed inappropriate?

According to Catholic canon law, priests promise to be celibate when they're ordained, but what happens if a priest is accused of conducting a sexual relationship with an adult parishioner?

"Morally, it's certainly unacceptable," Sevilla said.

Absolutely inappropriate, echoed a spokesman for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

There's an "inherent power imbalance" when a priest is involved with a member of his flock, argued David Clohessy, national director of SNAP.

Father Robert Siler
Photo by Baumbardner Imaging Inc.

However, there's little agreement on how the situation should be handled.

In a recent telephone interview, Sevilla explained that the diocesan clergy sex abuse policy focuses on safeguarding children.

"There's a distinction between adults and minors," he said.

That means the diocese wouldn't internally pursue any abuse allegations concerning an adult.

"If the person is an adult, it's not necessary for the diocese to report it (an incident) to the authorities, but he could always report it," Sevilla said.

The Gonzlez situation, then, is difficult in two regards: first, he's alleging that he was abused by a priest, but he was an adult at the time. Second, he has been charged with viewing child pornography in Oregon.

Sevilla apologized last month for hiring Gonzlez in 2003 to work at St. Peter Retreat Center in Cowiche, even though the bishop knew he was under criminal investigation for the matter.

Gonzlez is scheduled to be arraigned June 5 in Oregon on charges he viewed child pornography in 2003 while attending a seminary in Marion County, Ore. Until then, he is free on bond, living at home in Tieton.

The issue took on a new dimension when Gonzlez's family claimed publicly several weeks ago that he had been sexually abused by a priest here during the 1990s.

Photo by Sara Gettys

Gonzlez said that soon after he moved to the Cowiche area from Jalisco, Mexico, a priest in the diocese began making sexual overtures to him, culminating in a sexual assault about six years ago.

Last month, the Gonzlez family handed out a letter at their church alleging the abuse and identifying the priest, who now lives in another state.

The priest does not deny the allegations, nor does the Rev. Robert Siler, Yakima diocese chief of staff.

Siler said the priest has been on a leave of absence for at least three years and is not actively serving in the ministry. The diocese has made public the fact that he received treatment for alcohol abuse.

Asked to comment on Gonzlez's specific allegations, the bishop has said he treats any activity between adults as a confidential matter.

Siler later elaborated in an e-mail: "The Bishop's goal, when dealing with the very human failings, at times, of his priests, is to help them heal and hopefully not stumble and fall again. And to help people who have been hurt by priests to heal as well."

As for Gonzlez's behavior while he worked at the retreat center in Cowiche, Siler said he knew of no complaints. He added, "I don't think he'd hurt a flea."

That's an opinion shared by Gonzlez's former boss at the retreat center. Renene Hudson deGoede, who now lives in Seattle, supervised Gonzlez when he first began work in Cowiche. She said she was "stunned" when she heard there were criminal charges against the quiet, private young man.

Yakima Herald-Republic Juan Gonzalez during his extradition hearing in Yakima County court Tuesday, April 22, 2008.
Photo by Andy Sawyer

Robert Fontana, a member of Voice of the Faithful, also found Gonzlez to be respectful. A 25-year employee with the Yakima diocese before resigning in 2005, Fontana knew Gonzlez through his previous role as diocesan director of evangelism.

Fontana said the diocese should have handled Gonzlez's allegations differently. Being open about such situations is the only way the church can heal from the sex abuse scandals that have shocked the nation, he said.

Even though Gonzlez was not a minor, Fontana contends, it's still abuse, particularly since Gonzlez was a member of the church youth group.

"It's psychological molestation, a manipulation of power," he said.

Siler maintains that Gonzlez was capable of making decisions for himself as an adult and therefore shouldn't be considered a vulnerable person.

In an e-mail, Siler noted, "Unpleasant and terrible as his experience with the priest in question might have been, it seems to me we're talking about a case of alleged sexual harassment, rather than sexual misconduct with a vulnerable person."

Russ Mazzola, a Yakima attorney and chairman of the diocesan lay advisory board, which was formed in 2003 to advise the bishop on sexual abuse matters, said Gonzlez's allegations haven't come before the board.

"Since the alleged conduct was between adults, even if it was inappropriate, on the surface it's something the board wouldn't necessarily investigate," Mazzola said.

A new policy being adopted in the diocese on sex abuse by clergy, which deals with minors and not adults, is in keeping with policies written by the majority of diocesan lay advisory boards across the country. That's according to Teresa Kettelkamp, executive director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection in Washington, D.C., which was established by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops after sex abuse scandals became nationally known in 2002.

But that's not right, said Bertha Gonzlez, Juan's sister.

"With this phrase — 'he's an adult' — the church washes its hands," she said.

She described the family of 10 brothers and sisters as emotionally distraught over what they see as betrayal by the church. The entire family, not just her brother, has always been extremely devout, she said. They attended Mass every Sunday, members sang in the choir and their mother was a catechist for many years.

After he was arrested, Gonzlez told his family about the alleged abuse by the priest; hearing that has virtually destroyed the family's relationship with their church, she said.

Sevilla has said he would be willing to meet with Gonzlez and his family, noting that he has never lost his concern for them.

Bertha Gonzlez likened her brother's actions to those of an abused spouse.

"He was maintaining a huge secret and emotional pain. He felt dirty after the priest molested him and felt like he was involved in the contamination," she said.

Richard Sipe of La Jolla, Calif., the author of "Sex, Priests and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis," said describing someone like Gonzlez as an abused spouse is not far-fetched.

A psychotherapist, board chairman of the Interfaith Sexual Trauma Institute in Collegeville, Minn., and a former priest, Sipe said the fact that Gonzlez was an adult when the alleged abuse occurred is irrelevant.

"You don't expect those actions from a priest. It's not criminal in the same sense, but it has to be addressed," Sipe said.

He's heard of other allegations of priests sexually grooming seminary students.

"Unfortunately, this kind of consequence gets passed down from one generation to another," Sipe said.


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