Files Reveal Abuse Allegations against Former Oxnard Priest
By Tom Kisken
Ventura County Star
February 6, 2013
|Associated Press Cardinal Roger Mahony speaks during a past annual multiethnic migration Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez relieved retired Cardinal Mahony of public duties on the same night the church released thousands of files on priest sexual abuse.|
Photo by Reed Saxon
|Bishop Thomas Curry blesses the Eucharist and wine on Oct. 6, 2010, during the Red Mass service for lawyers, judges and other members of the legal community|
When Archdiocese of Los Angeles officials asked a onetime Oxnard priest who admitted to fondling boys and girls while they slept to voluntarily leave the priesthood, they offered $30,000 to help with the transition.
The Rev. Gary Fessard asked for more.
“I am asking for a settlement sum of at least $2,500 for each year of ordination,” wrote the priest, who worked in the archdiocese for 30 years and was alleged to have sexually abused more than 20 people, according to church files. He also asked for continued health insurance.
“I must state that without the archdiocese continuing to provide permanently the full present level of my medical coverage, any thought of my seeking laicization is neither realistic nor possible,” he wrote, detailing his debt and his limited chances of finding another vocation as a lay person.
The letter is tucked inside a 727-page personnel file. It’s part of an avalanche of clergy abuse records placed online by the church more than a week ago in a release linked to a $660 million settlement in 2007 with more than 500 clergy abuse victims.
Fessard’s file traces 20 years of a clergy abuse crisis. It shows church leaders working to keep a priest in the ministry after he admitted to molestation. It reveals a 1987 conviction linked to sexual misconduct at a high school seminary, two stints in treatment and evaluation centers, turmoil in a parish where the priest was reassigned, and references to a lawsuit alleging molestation during a boy’s sleepover at Santa Clara Parish in Oxnard in the late 1970s.
In the records, Fessard said he was successfully treated, learning how to deal with what he called a sexual addiction. He said his last episode of “acting out” was in 1987. Church records provide no proof of later allegations, although the records do reveal accusations received in 1997 and 2003 regarding decades-old incidents.
After a barrage of requests for financial support and letters sent not only to the archdiocese but to Rome, Fessard asked to be reduced to a layman and was officially removed from the priesthood in 2007.
Archdiocese officials rejected Fessard’s request for a $75,000 payout but did give him $30,000. Their correspondence also cited plans for an archdiocese annuity that would pay the priest $1,000 a month. They agreed to pay an undisclosed amount of money to help with medical insurance.
Don Steier, Fessard’s lawyer, described the negotiations as severance.
Archdiocese lawyer J. Michael Hennigan said the payments — used in part by Fessard to buy a car — are not unusual for laicized priests. He said that when a priest becomes ordained, he gives up all rights to outside income.
“There usually has to be a transition,” Hennigan said.
Anthony De Marco, a Pasadena lawyer who reviewed Fessard’s file as part of a lawsuit alleging a church cover-up of clergy abuse, said the payments were made with a purpose.
“It’s hush money,” he said in an allegation Hennigan called preposterous. “It’s money for him to keep his mouth closed.”
3 years in Oxnard
Now 66, Fessard declined to comment when contacted by phone at the mobile home park he manages in Gardena.
He was born in Little Rock, Ark., and was ordained in 1972 after attending St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo. According to records from a treatment center in Maryland, his sexual abuse began at age 19 as a camp counselor.
“He began touching adolescent males who were between the ages of 12 and 14 when he thought they were asleep,” the 1994 report said. “He also admits that he has sexually touched two 13-year-old females who were asleep.”
Allegations followed him into the priesthood. Henry Joseph Guzman met the priest when he was an associate pastor in Santa Fe Springs. Guzman said he visited the priest at age 11 or 12 after Fessard started a three-year assignment at Santa Clara High School in Oxnard in 1977.
They went to a movie theater to see “You Light Up My Life.” Guzman said he spent the night in the rectory at Santa Clara Parish in Oxnard, on the floor next to Fessard’s bed.
“I was awakened. He was over me,” said Guzman, claiming the priest fondled him while masturbating. He made his allegations in a 2003 lawsuit that was part of the church’s record-setting settlement in 2007. Now living in Boulder, Colo., he hasn’t looked at the personnel records that detail other allegations against Fessard.
“Four years of my life were given away to the archdiocese,” he said, referring to his years of suing the church. “I figured I wouldn’t give them any more power.”
After stints as a teacher in Playa del Rey and as associate superintendent of the archdiocese’s elementary schools, Fessard was named dean of studies at Our Lady Queen of Angels Seminary, a Mission Hills high school for students interested in the priesthood.
In 1987, two students said the priest touched them while they were sleeping, according to the records. Three other students alleged inappropriate touching at a cabin.
“According to California law, the allegations had to be reported to the police and they are now conducting an investigation,” said Monsignor Thomas Curry in a letter to the Servants of the Paraclete in New Mexico, where Fessard was sent for treatment.
Four misdemeanor charges eventually were filed against Fessard. In a plea deal, he pleaded no contest to one count of battery and one charge of soliciting lewd acts. He received three years of probation, according to the church records, and the charges were later expunged.
When the conviction was first delivered, the church acted quickly. Curry, who supervised priests as vicar of clergy, wrote a character reference for the priest on June 24, 1987 — the day after Fessard’s no-contest plea.
“I have known him since his ordination as a priest in 1972 both personally and by reputation,” Curry wrote to the Los Angeles County Probation Department, “and know him to be a person of competence, dedication and concern for others.”
Curry was later named regional bishop for Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. He resigned his position after released clergy abuse files showed he played a role in protecting accused priests and the church.
His is a constant presence in Fessard’s files. He wrote about the minimal chance of publicity over Fessard’s conviction. He sent a promissory note to the priest in the treatment center regarding a loan from the archdiocese. He reviewed a report on Fessard from the treatment program and wrote optimistically of the priest’s chances of returning to ministry in a note to Archbishop Roger Mahony, later named cardinal.
When plans were being made to return Fessard to the ministry, Curry wrote to a municipal judge. At Fessard’s request, Curry asked for a condition of probation to be changed, allowing the priest to hear confessions.
“Father Fessard has made significant progress in therapy, and from my contact with the therapists, I believe he would not be considered a danger to minors at the present time,” Curry wrote.
Mahony’s name emerges often, too, receiving notes from Curry or a treatment report from the center. “Looks promising,” he wrote on one update of the man whom he would brand a predator in a letter to the pope 19 years later.
Like Curry, the now-retired cardinal has apologized for his actions in dealing with clergy abuse. When the church released 12,000 pages of personnel files on the last day of January, Mahony was relieved of his public duties, although he maintains his standing in the church and his ability to minister.
If archdiocese leaders worried about protecting the church, they weren’t alone. An administrator for the Servants of the Paraclete treatment program sent a report on Fessard to the church in June 1988. It was accompanied by an urgent and apparently unheeded request.
“Once more, we ask you to PLEASE DESTROY THESE PAGES AND ALL OTHER MATERIAL YOU HAVE RECEIVED FROM US,” a center administrator wrote. “This is stated for your own and our own legal protection.”
‘We knew nothing’
The optimism about Fessard slowly faded. He was assigned to the archdiocese’s matrimonial tribunal, beginning a long service with a religious court of law. After a trip to Rome to study canon law, he was assigned to live at St. Luke the Evangelist Catholic Church in Temple City.
Records show the church’s pastor was aware of Fessard’s past. Rules were established limiting his contact with minors. There is no mention in the rules of any communication of the priest’s background to parishioners.
Attorney De Marco said church members were not told. The assertion is supported by Mary Lee Saporito, a parishioner at the church for more than 40 years.
“We knew nothing about that,” Saporito said, adding she worked with the priest and observed nothing in his behavior that made her suspicious.
But complaints from others emerged. In 1994, parishioners met with an archdiocese official. They said Fessard would show up at a youth group meeting two or three times a week, sometimes apparently under the influence of alcohol. He led a strange hourlong conversation about celibacy.
One parishioner said he repeatedly patted her daughter on the rear end. One girl told her mother she wondered if the priest had molested children.
“That’s how uncomfortable he makes me,” she said.
Fessard was removed from the parish. He was sent to alcohol treatment and then evaluated at Saint Luke Institute, a mental health clinic in Maryland. He remained on the church tribunal and eventually was assigned to live in a convent for retired nuns in Monrovia.
No longer a priest
In a written self-evaluation in 1996, Fessard said his sexual problems were linked to his alcoholism. He said treatment, counseling and a balanced lifestyle helped him deal with both problems.
“I have come to believe and to demonstrate that I am no longer at risk of acting out sexually and I am not at present a threat to minors,” he wrote.
Allegations continued, all focused on past activity. In 1997, a man said that when he was 8 or 9, Fessard molested him during a dinner party. In 2003, Guzman and another man said they were both molested by the priest in the 1970s.
Fessard was removed from active ministry in 2002 after the clergy abuse scandal broke in Boston and then engulfed Los Angeles. Mahony pledged to remove any priests found to have abused children.
Mahony once expressed optimism about Fessard’s future and treatment. But in a December 2006 letter to the pope regarding the need to remove the priest, the cardinal said the number of Fessard’s victims was unknown.
“It is important to note that Father Fessard’s sexual abuse of minors was not an isolated incident but involved more than 20 individuals with multiple occurrences over a period of many years,” Mahony wrote. “He is, in fact, a sexual predator.”
To some, the files of Fessard and others show a church making tragic mistakes but ultimately learning how to protect children. Hennigan said the archdiocese now has the most effective safeguards against molestation in the nation.
If another Gerald Fessard emerged today with court convictions related to sexual misconduct, “he would never serve again,” Hennigan said.
To De Marco, the Fessard file reflects priests who confessed their acts to the highest archdiocese leaders and remained in the ministry, with barriers intended to keep them from children easily evaded.
The only thing that changed the church’s dealings with accused priests was the driving wall of public pressure and massive litigation, said De Marco.
“They knew he was a predator,” he said of Fessard. “There was nothing new in 2006. The only difference was at that point in time, they were dealing with lawsuits.”
Guzman, the alleged victim, doesn’t want to know what’s in the files. It won’t change his opinion of the church.
“The church is a money-churning entity,” he said. “They are a business, and they will do whatever they have to protect that business.”