Diocese of Yakima Still Opposed to Naming Accused

By Jane Gargas
Yakima Herald-Republic
September 29, 2013

As he leaves Yakima behind, Robert Fontana, who headed the local chapter of Voice of the Faithful, remains at odds with the Catholic Diocese of Yakima over the naming of clergy accused of sexual abuse.

Fontana argues that the diocese should publish the names of all diocesan clergy on its website who have faced credible allegations of sexual abuse, where they served and when.

A spokesman for the diocese vociferously disagrees, saying that school districts and Scout organizations don’t publish names of the accused on their websites.

Listing names on diocesan websites is not unheard of, but it’s not common, either. Of the 195 dioceses in the United States, only 34 publish names of accused clerics on their websites. In Washington, just the Spokane Diocese does so. Yakima and Seattle do not.

According to the U.S. Conference of Bishops, a credible allegation is “one which has a semblance of truth to it following an initial examination of the facts and circumstances surrounding the allegation.”

While Fontana believes that victims would find it less intimidating to come forward if they thought that a clergy member may have abused others, Monsignor Robert Siler, diocese chief of staff, takes a different view.

“It’s a case-by-case decision to release names,” he explains. “In some instances, the priests are dead and can’t protect themselves, and there’s no supporting evidence.”

More than a dozen clergy members who served in the Yakima Diocese have been accused in lawsuits of sexual abuse, which have been recorded in this newspaper; many were settled out of court. Most of the alleged behavior occurred decades ago, and many of those clerics are deceased.

One case the diocese has never publicly acknowledged was against the Rev. John Tholen. Fontana says omitting what Tholen was accused of is an example of the kind of cover up that erupted into a national clergy scandal in Boston in 2002.

Tholen, who served in several parishes in the diocese, including Holy Redeemer, Holy Family and St. Paul Cathedral, died in January 2012 at age 76.

In 1997, when Tholen was pastor at Holy Redeemer, a man from the Seattle area contacted the diocese to say he had been molested by the priest about 35 years earlier.

Thomas Rehfield, who grew up in a devout Catholic family that lived across the street from Holy Redeemer, says Tholen fondled him on an overnight trip to Ocean Shores when Rehfield was a young teen. In retrospect, he concluded that Tholen began grooming him several months earlier, giving him cigarettes and beer whenever he mowed the rectory’s lawn.

After reporting the alleged abuse to the diocese, Rehfield says he met with then Bishop Carlos Sevilla in Rehfield’s psychiatrist’s office in San Francisco, the city where he was living at the time. Both Rehfield and the psychiatrist, Dr. Gilbert Kliman, medical director of the Psychological Trauma Center in San Francisco, says that Sevilla apologized for the abuse, used Tholen’s name and offered a monetary settlement.

Rehfield, who is 62, says he was asked to sign a confidentiality agreement but never did so.

Later that same year — 1997 — Holy Redeemer parishioners were told that Tholen was retiring for medical reasons, and diocesan officials have never departed from that explanation. Fontana argues that parishioners should have been told what he says was the “real” truth over why the priest was being removed from ministry. Otherwise, he maintains, other children might have been in jeopardy if their parents didn’t know of the allegations.

Thomas Rehfield’s younger brother, Chris, filed suit in King County Superior Court in 1999, alleging that he was also sexually abused by Tholen several years after his brother’s alleged incident.

The Yakima Diocese settled that lawsuit in July 2000. Chris Rehfield did sign a confidentiality agreement with the diocese, saying he would not disclose details of the settlement. However, he says he has become disillusioned with the way abusive priests have been handled and has changed his mind. “What are they going to do to me now?” he asks. When queried about the Tholen case, Siler said that he was not at liberty to discuss it, saying only that “We have not chosen to make public all accusations.”

He pointed out that the diocese has abided by the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which addresses the removal of abusive priests from ministry, drawn up by the nation’s bishops after the clergy sex scandal unfolded nationally in 2002.

According to Siler, if a lawsuit was filed before the charter was created in 2002, the diocese doesn’t have to make the accused priest’s name public.

Claramae Rehfield, whose sons made the allegations, remained a faithful Catholic until she died in 2011. But she expressed disappointment several years ago that she never had an apology from Tholen; he wouldn’t even speak to her, she said in an interview. Her sons, Thomas and Chris, say their experience soured their attitudes toward the church.

After retiring with a pension from the diocese, Tholen moved to a private residence in West Yakima and regularly attended Mass at Holy Family. Although he didn’t dress in cleric garb, he was congratulated on his anniversaries as a priest in the church bulletin, and his photograph hangs in Holy Family along with other former pastors there. In a telephone call with this newspaper several years ago, Thomas Rehfield said he thought it was immoral that Tholen was allowed to be respected as a retired priest and never held accountable for his actions.

Further, Thomas Rehfield believes that protecting the reputation of priests is a higher priority for the church than protecting children and reaching out to victims. He came forward when he did because, “The church has a propensity to cover for these people, and that’s why I can’t be quiet,” he says.

“If I can shed some light in a dark corner, sign me up.”



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