Few Claims of Abuse by Clerics Surfaced during Gomez's Past Tenures As a Prelate

By Carol J. Williams
Los Angeles Times
April 11, 2010,0,1495869.story

Only a handful of allegations that Catholic clergy sexually abused minors surfaced during Archbishop Jose Gomez's stints in Denver and San Antonio, providing scant evidence of how he would handle such cases.

Some victims' advocates have alleged that more abuse may have occurred but that Gomez and others in the church hierarchy did not push for a completely open accounting. Gomez was auxiliary bishop in Denver in 2002, when the archdiocese reported seven cases over the previous 53 years. That figure was about one-fourth the incidence of abuse reported by dioceses across the country, leading a victims' group to accuse the Denver Archdiocese of a "vast underestimate."

At least three instances of alleged sexual misconduct have come to Gomez's attention during his five years in San Antonio: accusations against Brother Richard Suttle of the Claretian Missionaries, Father Lawrence Hernandez of the Trinitarian order and Father Charles H. Miller, who had been assigned to St. Mary's University, a Marianist school in San Antonio.

In all three cases, the abuse was alleged to have occurred years before Gomez became bishop, but the accused molesters were allowed to live and work in territory within his archdiocese without the public knowing of their alleged crimes.

The clerics' orders informed some parishioners of the allegations against their priests, but that limited disclosure left the rest of the community unaware of the potential risk to kids, said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. "We think the responsible course of action would have been to notify the public. Predatory priests don't just molest Catholic kids," he said.

In a brief comment during a news conference in Los Angeles last week, Gomez denied any impropriety in the handling of those cases.

Last year, San Antonio SNAP coordinator Barbara Garcia Boehland wrote to Gomez asking him to take action against Suttle and Miller, whose orders found that allegations they had molested minors were credible. She urged Gomez to identify all known abusers in the archdiocese, apologize to victims and explain why he had kept cases secret. "We worry about the safety of unsuspecting families who have been and are near these dangerous men even today. We are appalled by your silence about them," she told him.

Suttle was sent by his order to live in Claretian housing in San Antonio after allegations that he molested a minor in Phoenix in the early 1980s. A spokesman for the San Antonio Archdiocese said that it was not informed of the move, but that upon learning of Suttle's presence and the allegations, Gomez reminded the order to keep Suttle out of ministries, especially those involving children, and was reassured the order would monitor him.

Miller was relocated to Rome after an internal review by his Marianist order found reports of multiple assaults on a St. Louis girl 30 years ago to be "credible."

Hernandez was suspended by his order in 2008 for the reported molestations of a boy in the late 1970s and early '80s. His actions came to light only months after his suspension when church bulletins called on any other victims of Hernandez to come forward.

As in California, Texas law obliges anyone with knowledge of sexual abuse of minors, including clergy, to inform civil authorities.

There are no active prosecutions of clergy alleged to have sexually abused minors in the San Antonio area, said Catherine Babbitt, chief of the Family Justice and Victim Protection Division of the Bexar County district attorney's office.

A "handful" of allegations have come to her attention in the 11 years she's been in the office, but all were outside the statute of limitations for prosecution, she said. She said she has a good working relationship with the archdiocese's "point man" on clergy sex abuse, Father Martin Leopold, but that she couldn't say whether the church hierarchy has fully cooperated.

Another case came to light Thursday in a lawsuit filed two days after the announcement that Gomez would succeed Cardinal Roger Mahony in L.A. The case accuses a West Texas priest, Father John M. Fiala, of sexual assault on a teenage boy in 2007 and 2008 and says Gomez should have known about the abuse.

The archbishop was informed of an Edwards County investigation into Fiala, but for alleged "custodial interference," not sexual assault, San Antonio Archdiocese spokesman Pat Rodgers said in a statement.

Edwards County Sheriff Don Letsinger said Friday that the archdiocese and Gomez had "cooperated fully" in the Fiala inquiry.


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