Proven Innocent

By Jesse Duarte
St. Helena Star

September 25, 2008

An advocacy group for those abused by priests is requesting the resignation of Monsignor John Brenkle from a church sex abuse review panel because he was once accused of attempting to lure a boy into his sacristy under false pretenses in the 1990s.

The accusation by the child’s father was false, according to two letters from the supposed victim who said the accusation is groundless and that Brenkle was not abusive in any way.

Brenkle’s innocence was further bolstered when he asked the St. Helena Police Department to investigate, and police found no evidence of wrongdoing on his part.

Despite the evidence of Brenkle’s innocence, representatives of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a nonprofit advocacy and support group based in Southern California, said Brenkle should not serve on the Sexual Misconduct Abuse Review Board for the Santa Rosa Diocese.

The group raised the issue on Sept. 9 during a church-organized child safety session held at St. Apollinaris Catholic Church in Napa.

SNAP learned about the case after Brenkle stood up at a meeting of the review panel in March — where a SNAP member was present — and said he’d been falsely accused.

The boy, now a grown man, has written two letters — one in 2002 and another this year — unequivocally stating that Brenkle never abused him, and that his father’s accusations against Brenkle were false.

But SNAP argues that simply the fact that Brenkle was accused should disqualify him from serving as an impartial judge of other cases as the chair of the Sexual Misconduct Abuse Review Board for the Santa Rosa Diocese.

How the story began

The story behind the accusation begins in the 1990s, when the father of an altar server wrote to police and a Washington, D.C., church official accusing Brenkle of using a $10 stipend to bribe his son to break the Fourth Commandment, which in the Catholic numbering system refers to honoring one’s father and mother. The letter did not allege any criminal misconduct on Brenkle’s part.

According to a police report obtained by the Star, an officer questioned the boy’s parents and determined that the letter was based on what the boy had told his father concerning a conversation between the boy and Brenkle.

According to Brenkle, he had had a one-on-one conversation with the boy when the boy was getting ready to serve at a wedding. Brenkle said he asked the boy how things were going at home, and he responded that things were fine.

Brenkle told the Star he believes the allegation was leveled because he asked the boy if he was being abused at home. In his 2002 letter the supposed victim said the conversation was a result of his family members approaching Brenkle about his welfare.

After the wedding ceremony, Brenkle gave all the altar servers, including the boy, a $10 stipend.

The police report indicates that the father didn’t request that police take any further action; he only asked them to keep his letter on file. Police took an information report, and the matter was dropped.

No crime committed

In 2002 the incident resurfaced when the father wrote a letter to Bishop Daniel Walsh of Santa Rosa, this time alleging that the $10 stipend had been a bribe and accusing Brenkle of “luring our young son into his sacristy one night under false pretenses. He asked our son to conceal the meeting and their conversation from his parents.”

Walsh forwarded the letter to Brenkle, who immediately took it to the St. Helena Police Department. Brenkle also gave police a notarized letter from the supposed victim — by then an adult — who stated that his father’s accusations against Brenkle were groundless.

“Fr. Brenkle never abused me,” he stated.

Police checked their files and found the original complaint alleging that Brenkle bribed the boy to violate the Fourth Commandment in the 1990s. Police took no further action.

The father’s 2002 letter to Walsh also resulted in the case coming before the review board chaired by Brenkle, who recused himself. The father was invited to come in and make a statement, but he never appeared.

Exonerated again

The matter came up again in March 2008, when the review board started going through its old cases and found the accusation against Brenkle. The file didn’t contain the letter from the now-grown boy exonerating Brenkle, so Brenkle asked him to write another.

The former altar server wrote another letter, this one addressed to the diocese’s Sensitive Issues Committee in Santa Rosa, reiterating that the stipend he’d received was typically given to altar servers and that it was not intended to foster any kind of inappropriate relationship.

Brenkle recently celebrated 50 years as a priest, including 30 years of service to the Upvalley. As for his future on the review panel, he said, “That’s the bishop’s call.”

“SNAP operates on the premise that once somebody is accused, they are guilty,” said Brenkle. “But having been accused, I think I bring a certain perspective to the board.”

Brenkle said he has a clear conscience.

“I live with the truth,” he said. “I sleep well at night.”

Innocence not enough

Earlier this month SNAP sent a letter to Bishop Walsh requesting that Brenkle, who they referred to as “an accused molester,” be removed from the board.

“I believe it’s a conflict of interest for Monsignor Brenkle to be the head of that board, although he’s been exonerated, if that’s the case,” said Mary Pitcher, one of the signatories of the letter. “Survivors have a hard enough time talking to any priest, or anybody representing the church, about the allegations that they have.

“If they think that there is a chance that that person is an abuser, it makes it that much harder for the survivors, who are the ones I’m most concerned about. I’m sorry if there are certain priests and church employees who are suffering because of this, but in my estimation, the survivors come first.”

SNAP was also involved in an accusation against Monsignor Joe Alzugaray of St. Apollinaris Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles settled that case, along with more than 500 others, in 2007.

Brenkle’s experience of being accused makes it impossible for him to be impartial when investigating abuse allegations such as the one against Alzugaray, said Pitcher.

As for SNAP’s letter referring to Brenkle as “an accused molester,” Pitcher said “perhaps the grammar could have been improved, but he has been accused of molestation.”

Police records reviewed by the Star do not indicate any accusations of sexual molestation being lodged against Brenkle at any time.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.