|Monterey Diocese Receives Sex-Abuse Claim against Popular Priest
By Larry Parsons and Virginia Hennessey
February 16, 2011
A former altar boy and choir member filed a lawsuit Tuesday against a popular Catholic priest who served for almost two decades at churches in Salinas and San Juan Bautista, alleging the cleric molested him from 2004 to 2005.
An attorney for the Rev. Edward Fitz-Henry, pastor at Mission San Juan Bautista, said the priest strongly denies all allegations of sexual abuse.
Fitz-Henry was suspended Jan. 7 and ordered to leave the church rectory that evening after Monterey Diocese officials received an allegation that the priest sexually abused a minor in 2005 while at Madonna del Sasso Church in Salinas, a diocese spokesman said Tuesday.
"Within an hour, we notified Salinas police, as per our policy," said diocese spokesman Tom Riordan.
That department is in the early stages of a criminal investigation, said spokesman Lalo Villegas.
The complaint against Fitz-Henry was outlined in a document mailed to the diocese by a law firm, Riordan said. That firm, Manly & Stewart of Newport Beach, filed suit Tuesday. Riordan was unaware the lawsuit had been filed when he commented Tuesday.
Diocese officials notified parishioners last weekend at the Salinas and the San Juan Bautista churches of the allegations against Fitz-Henry.
The notification was recommended by the diocese's independent review board after a private investigator hired by the diocese reported Feb. 9 that "credible" evidence of another episode of sexual abuse involving Fitz-Henry occurred nearly 20 years ago, Riordan said.
Salinas attorney Charlie Keeley said Fitz-Henry denies the allegations in both cases. She described the priest, a cleric in his mid-50s who was ordained in Ireland in 1985, as very popular among his parishioners.
"He is just devastated. He has given his life to the Catholic Church and to have his reputation gone like this is difficult," Keeley said.
The lawsuit alleges Fitz-Henry befriended the alleged victim, "John R.J. Doe," in 2004 at Madonna del Sasso. A musician, the 14-year-old was an altar boy and member of the choir who aspired to be a priest, according to his attorney, Vince Finaldi.
During counseling sessions and confessions, the priest asked unsolicited questions about the boy's sexual activity and preferences and encouraged him to act on homosexual urges, according to the suit.
The priest allegedly began hugging the teen, then touching him under his clothing. Finally, Finaldi said, Fitz-Henry cornered the boy in a church restroom and tried to force him to orally copulate him. As they struggled, he said, the priest slipped and the boy was able to run away.
The suit contends that the victim did not make the connection between the assaults and emotional and behavioral issues he was having as an adult until April 2010.
Riordan, the diocese spokesman, wouldn't say where the earlier episode of alleged sexual abuse occurred. Fitz-Henry has spent his entire career in the Monterey Diocese, he said.
The internal investigation didn't verify the credibility of the 2005 allegation, but that doesn't mean it is true or false, Riordan said. He said the diocese investigator talked to the alleged victims in both incidents.
He said the earlier allegation of sexual abuse came to light when the diocese investigator was doing interviews about a 1992 complaint lodged against Fitz-Henry involving "a non-sexual boundary violation."
Riordan said the priest did not always maintain what he called "a professional boundary" — as with a teacher or priest dealing with a child — but church officials "had no knowledge it was sexual at all."
"New information came out and when the review board was given that new information, they deemed that a credible incident of sexual misconduct," he said.
Late Tuesday, Finaldi rejected the contention the diocese was unaware of the sexual nature of the first case, which he said occurred at Carmel Mission and ended with a settlement between the diocese and the victim's family.
"Boundary violation," he said, is a "classic term the church always uses" for sexual misconduct.
Tuesday's lawsuit alleges the diocese knew about the prior case, and Fitz-Henry's propensity for child molestation, and covered it up, leaving the new victim vulnerable to abuse. It asks for unspecified damages against the Roman Catholic bishop of Monterey, Madonna del Sasso and Fitz-Henry for negligence, negligent hiring and supervision, failure to warn, intentional infliction of emotional distress, sexual battery and harassment and gender violence.
Villegas said the accuser in the Madonna del Sasso case first talked to police Feb. 1. Police have been in direct contact with the diocese, he said, but the original report by church officials in early January didn't trigger their investigation. He said the alleged victim, because he is now an adult, needed to come forward.
"I don't know why he went to the diocese first and didn't come in first," Villegas said.
Keeley said Finaldi's law firm has filed a number of lawsuits on behalf of alleged victims against the Catholic Church in the past decade.
Among those was a suit by a man who claimed he was molested by two other priests in Salinas over a period of six years, beginning in 1991, when he was 6 years old. That case settled in 2009 for $1.2 million.
Keeley said she could understand the actions taken by diocese officials against Fitz-Henry in light of the battering the Catholic Church has taken for years because of numerous sex and child-abuse scandals involving clergy members.
Another former Salinas Catholic pastor, the Rev. Antonio Cortes, who was arrested in April 2009, is awaiting trial on charges he molested a 16-year-old parishioner at St. Mary of the Nativity Church.
"They are obliged to do everything they can to appear to be transparent and to let everyone know what is going on — no matter what the effect on the individual is," she said.
A statement by the diocese said, "We take our promise to protect our children and young people from sexual abuse by a priest, deacon, religious or lay person seriously."
'Shock and surprise'
The diocese says it has "a zero-tolerance policy" on sexual abuse involving church workers that requires "swift action in the case of a priest or deacon who is accused of sexual abuse."
Fitz-Henry was pastor at the Salinas church from 2005 to 2007, then returned to Mission San Juan Bautista.
Riordan said he spent Sunday at Madonna del Sasso, distributing a diocesan letter about Fitz-Henry's case and brochures about how church members can report sexual misconduct.
"The overall response was shock and surprise," he said. "A few people were angry."
He said the diocese will continue its investigation and church officials in Rome will be notified. There likely will be an internal church trial to weigh the evidence against Fitz-Henry, which would be independent of whatever police and prosecutors decide to do, he said.
Villegas said no other potential victims have come forward since the weekend notification at the two churches by diocese officials. Riordan said no one else has come forward to the diocese.
Keeley said police had not yet talked to her or Fitz-Henry.
"He is here, ready and willing," she said.
Larry Parsons can be reached at 646-4379 or email@example.com.
Virginia Hennessey can be reached at 753-6751 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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