Sadness but Little Shock over Latest Church Allegations

By Guy Kovner
The Press Democrat
March 27, 2010

Retired Judge John Gallagher of Santa Rosa is among the Catholics wondering if the head of their church, Pope Benedict XVI, is guilty of covering up the crimes of child-abusing priests.

“I don’t know,” Gallagher said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if he is.”

The pontiff, who previously served as archbishop in Munich and as enforcer of church doctrine in Rome, is “part of the old church,” Gallagher said.

By that, he means the church hierarchy’s practice of concealing the sins of its priests, which played out over 30 years on the North Coast as bishops destroyed records of clerical misconduct, paid money to victims and failed to report offenders to police.

“The attitude of the church was that these things are kept quiet,” said Gallagher, 72, a former prosecutor who served 21 years as a Superior Court judge.

The sex abuse scandal broke open in the Santa Rosa Diocese in 1994 — eight years before it rocked the nation — largely based on allegations by Stephen Gallagher, the judge’s son, that he was molested by a priest at a Catholic youth camp.

While he has largely come to terms with the church, Gallagher still seethes over the stonewalling his son initially received from church and police officials.

“Stephen will never be the same,” Gallagher said.

His abuser, defrocked priest Gary Timmons, former pastor of St. Elizabeth Seton Catholic Church in Rohnert Park, served four years in prison and was required to register as a sex offender. The church also paid $2.5 million in civil settlements to Stephen Gallagher and nine other men.

Timmons is the only one of 17 Santa Rosa Diocese priests accused of sexual misconduct to serve time in prison.

Eight of them have been named by victims in various disclosures; the other nine have not been identified by Bishop Daniel Walsh or his predecessors.

No purpose would be served by identifying those priests because they are either dead or no longer serving in the diocese, Walsh said in 2005.

Walsh, who has headed the diocese since 2000, also won a court order in 2004 to keep the personnel files of accused priests secret.

The bishop could not be reached for comment Thursday or Friday. An aide said his office was closed and she did not know his whereabouts.

The late Mark Hurley, Santa Rosa’s second bishop, said in a 1995 court deposition: “I’ve never gone to the police. I think there’s a danger in that and therefore, I have never reported anything on anybody to the police.”

Hurley also testified that he tore up all confidential personnel records before leaving office in 1987.

“You try to save a person’s priesthood if possible,” Bishop John Steinbock, Hurley successor, testified in 2002. Steinbock had been asked why he had tried to reassign the late Don Kimball, a priest who admitted to fondling six girls, rather than firing him.

Kimball, once a charismatic youth minister, was accused in a 1997 lawsuit of molesting four people, a case ultimately settled by the diocese for $1.6 million.

The suit prompted criminal charges, culminating in Kimball’s conviction in April 2002 for molesting a parishioner at a Healdsburg church rectory in 1981. But the conviction and seven-year prison sentence were voided by the Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling that California could not prosecute decades-old child molestation cases.

The diocese has paid about $25 million to settle victims’ lawsuits, bringing it at one point to the brink of bankruptcy.

Cindy Vrooman of Sonoma, a former Catholic nun, said the scandal now spreading across Europe — and honing in on Pope Benedict’s potential involvement — vindicates those, like her, who maintained a decade ago that sex abuse by Catholic priests was not “an American problem.”

“Am I shocked? No,” said Vrooman, who no longer considers herself a Catholic. “Am I saddened? Yes.”

The European scandal has diminished Pope Benedict’s moral authority, she said, noting that the pontiff scolded Irish bishops for their failures in a rampant sex abuse scandal but imposed no penalty on them.

With increasing reports that the pope may have overlooked abuse in his native Germany, Vrooman said: “You begin to wonder, maybe that’s why he hasn’t really reprimanded the bishops.

Nearly two-thirds of the 178 U.S. bishops were alleged to have kept accused priests in the ministry or moved them to new assignments, according to a Dallas Morning News report in 2002.

No bishop has been held accountable, and church critics were angry that Cardinal Bernard Law, implicated in the coverup of widespread child molestation, resigned as archbishop of Boston and received a high-ranking post at the Vatican.

Mel Amato of Healdsburg, a Catholic lay leader, scoffed at the notion that the pope should step down. “Of course not,” he said. “Did Bill Clinton resign?”

None of the allegations against Pope Benedict have been tested in court, Amato said, while they are playing prominently “in the courts of the popular media.”

Amato, who serves on the Diocesan Pastoral Council, a lay advisory board to the bishop, said he does not condone sexual crimes of any sort, but believes the scandal is driven, in part, by people “who have an agenda against the Catholic Church.”

“Should the pope be crucified?” he said. “I don’t think so, but there are people who do.”

Bishop Walsh’s commitment to “zero tolerance” was questioned by critics after he delayed reporting a Sonoma Valley priest’s acknowledgment of misconduct in 2006.

The Rev. Xavier Ochoa allegedly fled to Mexico, and remains on the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office most wanted list.

District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua allowed Walsh to participate in a four-month counseling program instead of facing a misdemeanor charge for failing to file a timely report of child abuse.

Thirteen civic leaders came to Walsh’s defense, calling his action “an unfortunate error” and praising his leadership of the embattled diocese.

John Gallagher, who is sporadically attending Catholic Mass, said he is confidant that Walsh “will do the right thing” going forward.

His faith was shaken, despite his Catholic upbringing and education, Gallagher said, and he is attending an Episcopal church as well.

Mel Amato said his faith remains firm because it is apart from the church hierarchy and any of its flaws.

“My faith is not in the institution or the priests or the bishops,” he said. “My faith is in the values of the church.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or


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