Church Addresses Abuse Allegations

By Larry Parsons
Monterey Herald
February 17, 2011

Terri Austin, Joelle Casteix, Sarah Wilgress and Linda Madsen

A Catholic priest's suspension amid allegations that he molested a former altar boy at a Salinas church prompted criticism and a defense Wednesday of church officials' handling of the case.

A Diocese of Monterey spokesman said the diocese takes "any and all allegations of sexual misconduct very seriously" and immediately suspended the Rev. Edward Fitz-Henry in early January after first being apprised of the allegation against him.

But supporters of an advocacy group for people abused by clergy members called on the diocese to open its records on all priests and said a new civil suit filed by the former altar boy will be a means "to get to the truth."

"He is an extra-brave young man," said Joelle Casteix, regional director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a national advocacy group also called SNAP.

A handful of the group's supporters met with media members on the sidewalk in front of diocese offices in Monterey. One member held a sign that said: "Turn over files. Turn in abusers. Stop the cover-up."

Diocese officials notified parishioners at two churches where Fitz-Henry has worked most of the past 25 years, Madonna del Sasso and the San Juan Bautista Mission, over the weekend about allegations of misconduct involving the priest.

Diocese spokesman Tom Riordan said the priest was notified about his suspension and moved from the San Juan Bautista rectory within two hours after diocese attorneys received documents from the ex-altar boy's attorney.

During a news conference, Riordan said church officials hadn't seen the lawsuit and he couldn't comment.

Church officials had no reason to believe Fitz-Henry was involved in sexual misconduct before the January communication from the former altar boy's attorney about the alleged 2005 sexual abuse, Riordan said.

He said the diocese hired an independent private investigator a retired police detective to look into the allegation. That led the investigator to another incident that occurred almost 20 years ago involving Fitz-Henry.

The investigator found the earlier incident was of a sexual nature, Riordan said. Church officials previously concluded the incident involved an "improper boundary," but a non-sexual relationship, between Fitz-Henry and a minor, Riordan said.

"There were no red flags ... of sexual misconduct," he said. He denied reports the diocese reached a settlement with a family in the incident.

A diocese review board recommended last weekend's notification after finding there was credible evidence the earlier incident involved sexual misconduct. The church is encouraging other victims to step forward, Riordan said.

Casteix said church officials recklessly put the young man suing the diocese at risk by not cracking down on Fitz-Henry years ago.

"I'm glad he was suspended, but something tells me that it was way too late," she said.

Her group called upon the diocese to release "every document" pertaining to priests and accusations of sexual abuse. She accused investigators and church members of trying to intimidate the young man, and said he suffered "years of fear, intimidation and silence" before coming forward.

Casteix said a Salinas police criminal investigation and the young man's civil suit should go forward without interference.

"We need to get to the truth," she said.

Riordan said he was unaware of any intimidation, but acknowledged comments posted on online news stories have been critical of the alleged victim.

In his lawsuit, the young man accused the priest of asking unsolicited questions about sex, hugging and touching him, and trying to engage in forcible oral copulation.

"If there is any intimidation, I would be surprised and very disappointed," Riordan said.

Riordan declined comment on SNAP, but said anyone trying to help people deal with abuse is doing commendable work.

There are no other priests in the diocese who, like Fitz-Henry, have an allegation of sexual misconduct that has been found credible by the diocese's independent review board, he said.

Fitz-Henry is still on salary, but the diocese is not paying for a Salinas defense attorney he has hired, Riordan said.

His attorney says Fitz-Henry denies any allegations of sexual misconduct.

Larry Parsons can be reached at 646-4379 or

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