Palma Part of Bankruptcy Case Involving Child Sex Abuse Allegations

By Virginia Hennessey
Monterey Herald
February 27, 2012

From left, Melanie Sakoda, Sarah Wilgress, Joelle Casteix and Dida Kutz, members of SNAP (Survivors of those Abused by Priests) hold a press conference near Palma School in Salinas on Monday, naming priests who worked at Palma with prior allegations of misconduct.

Brother Jerome Matthias Heustis, former Palma High principal.

Brother Robert Brouillette, former Palma religion and history teacher.

Father Gerald Funcheon, former Palma chaplain and counselor.

Contrary to prior assertions, Palma High School could become a bargaining chip in a massive bankruptcy case involving child sex abuse allegations against the Irish Christian Brothers.

Palma's corporate entity, the Christian Brothers Institute of California Inc., is named as a defendant in one of the lawsuits that prompted the Christian Brothers to declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy in New York in April.

The plaintiff in that suit alleges he was molested at O'Dea High School in Seattle by Brother Edward Courtney, who was transferred to the school by his superiors despite numerous earlier claims of molestation. Those superiors were at the provincial headquarters, located in Salinas from 1969 to 1976.

"The high school is absolutely an asset in the bankruptcy case, as is the corporation in California," said Seattle lawyer Michael Pfau, who represents the plaintiff.

Additionally, he said, the federal judge ordered the Christian Brothers to turn over the alumni rosters of all of its schools where credible claims of child sexual abuse had been made. Palma High, the only Irish Christian Brothers school in California, was among them.

The Christian Brothers attorneys in New York and Chicago did not respond to inquiries Monday. But Palma President Brother Patrick Dunne insisted the province, though once headquartered in Salinas, never acted as the Christian Brothers Institute of California.

At issue is whether the high school would be considered an asset in settling

the bankruptcy, which has opened a narrow window for victims whose cases otherwise would be outside the statute of limitations. Any Palma alumnus abused by an employee or volunteer at Palma, sexually or otherwise, now has until Aug. 1 to file a claim and join the bankruptcy action.

"Naturally, I'm saddened and angered to hear any reports or allegations of the abuse of children by any adults, particularly by religious men whom they trusted and revered," Dunn said in a prepared statement Monday. "Importantly, none of our staff (or) the Brothers serving this school are connected to these legal issues."

Dunn released the statement in reaction to a press conference the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests held Monday outside the school to publicize the filing deadline.

As students revved their trucks and left campus on their lunch breaks, SNAP Regional Director Joelle Casteix identified three former Palma educators who have been named as perpetrators at other schools in the nation.

Brother Jerome Heustis was principal from 1976 to 1982. The Rev. Gerald Funcheon was a teacher and chaplain at Palma from 1984 to 1985. And Brother Robert Brouillette was a teacher from 1964 to 1968.

Each of the men has been credibly accused or convicted of child sex crimes from New Jersey to Hawaii, said Casteix, regional director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), who provided press reports and legal documents detailing lawsuits and settlements involving each man.

Before arriving at Palma, Heustis, now deceased, was accused of molesting a student at Essex High School in Newark, N.J. The man later shot himself in the head.

At least three men have filed lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by Brouillette and cover-ups by the Christian Brothers. In 1997, he was arrested in a sting operation after he arrived at an arranged meeting with a "12-year-old boy" he met online.

He was subsequently convicted of possession of child pornography. Casteix said he left the order and changed his name to Robert Sullivan. His whereabouts are unknown.

Funcheon arrived at Palma, with the blessings of Bishop Thaddeus Shubsda and his own Crosier provincial, after allegations arose at Damien Memorial High School in Hawaii in 1984, according to press reports at the time.

Before Hawaii he was accused by many children, three of whom were part of a $1.7 million settlement from the Crosiers in 2009. He is no longer a priest and his whereabouts are also unknown.

Tom Riordan, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Monterey, said a check of Funcheon's file shows Vicar General Tod Brown was assured by the Crosier provincial that Funcheon was a priest in good standing.

While attorneys quibble over corporate identities and the assets of the Irish Christian Brothers, it is Funcheon who may pose the most risk for Palma.

According to Casteix and Newport Beach attorney Mike Reck, one former Palma student has already come forward to accuse the former priest. Reck said he is preparing a lawsuit and a claim for the bankruptcy case on the man's behalf.

Palma alumni learned of the pending bankruptcy case early this month when they received a letter from the president of the board saying they would soon receive a court-ordered notification. The letter did not include the Aug. 1 deadline, nor did it inform potential victims they could join the action or tell them how to do so.

It stated that "NO ONE on Palma's staff is named in the Court document" and "Our assets may not be used to satisfy any claims in connection with this filing."

Casteix and an attorney appointed to represent alleged victims in the bankruptcy predicted the letter would backfire. Jim Stang of Los Angeles said similar letters have gone out across the nation, including New Jersey, where victims felt their alma mater was denying their abuse occurred.

"In my experience those letters are just going to anger people," said John Stang of Los Angeles, who represents the claimants committee. "People who never intended to file a lawsuit or make a claim are going to take action."

In addition to the letter notifying alumni about the Aug. 1 date, the Irish Christian Brothers were ordered to publish announcements in local newspapers and inform potential victims how to file a claim. Several attorneys described it as a complicated legal process, though forms will be available online.

People won't be required to use their surnames in the claims.



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