Archbishop apologizes for priest accused in hidden-camera case: 'I didn't expect him to disobey'

By Emily E. Smith
August 23, 2015

Portland Archbishop Alexander Sample at St. Francis Catholic Church on August 23, 2015.
Photo by Bruce Ely

The Rev. Alexander Sample, the archbishop of Portland, said Sunday he feels betrayed by a priest suspected of hiding a spy camera in a church bathroom and was too trusting in letting him live with a friend.

The priest left the country and returned to his home in the Philippines, avoiding arrest last week on charges of invasion of privacy, tampering with evidence and initiating a false report.

Apologizing to parishioners, Sample said he never anticipated 34-year-old Father Ysrael Bien's deception and understands how they could feel deep hurt and confusion of their own.

"People should expect more from us," he said.

The case began April 26, when a 15-year-old parishioner of St. Francis Catholic Church in Sherwood discovered the camera disguised as an electrical outlet affixed to a wall near a toilet at the church. He turned it over to Bien.

But instead of contacting police as he promised, court records say, Bien made up an elaborate story about a non-existent police investigation. After the boy's parents continued asking him for updates, Bien weeks later admitted his lie and went to police on May 20 to report the camera missing, investigators say.

Bien was suspended on June 24, "out of an abundance of caution," the archdiocese said in a letter at the time to parishioners.

Police now believe that Bien retreated to the Philippines on June 30.

The archbishop answered questions from The Oregonian/OregonLive at the Sherwood church where Bien started working in 2012. Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q. What was Father Ysrael Bien's past within the archdiocese?

A. Bien came to Oregon from the Philippines to become a priest, Sample said. After he completed his studies and was ordained, he was assigned as an associate pastor at St. Cecelia's Catholic Church in Beaverton and then came to St. Francis to fill a vacancy. He became pastor, leading the church and school in Sherwood.

Q. Had the church received any complaints about Father Bien before the hidden camera case?

A. When Bien was still in training to become a priest, one family complained about him, Sample said. Like many priests, Bien had a Facebook page and used it to communicate with parishioners. A young person friended him and then some time later unfriended him -- over nothing in particular, the archbishop said. Bien contacted the boy to ask why he'd unfriended him. The boy's parents thought that contact was concerning, so they reported it to church leaders. The parents wanted to make a record of it, but nothing more came of it.

Q. The church learned about the hidden camera and Father Bien's alleged lies to a parish family on May 20. But you didn't suspend him until June 24. Why the delay?

A. "I thought the investigation would move quickly, and something would happen," Sample said. "I was trying to step back and let the police do their work."

When Sample realized the result of the investigation wouldn't be immediate, he said, he decided he needed to pull Bien from the parish. Thinking the investigation could drag on, he said, "I don't want this to start all kinds of crazy rumors in the parish."

At the same time, he said, the police had publicly stated that Bien wasn't a suspect. That was confusing, he said.

Weeks later, Sample said, when he saw the search warrant affidavit filed in Bien's case, he put the priest on leave almost immediately. "When you see the facts laid out, how the police were laying this out, I thought, there's reason to be suspicious," he said.

Q. But even before then, you knew that he'd apparently misled the boy's family for weeks. He'd already betrayed their trust. Why not place him on leave sooner?

A. "His explanation was he had nothing to do with the camera," Sample said. Bien said the device had gone missing, and he panicked. The priest thought he was going to become the object of suspicion.

"I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt," Sample said. "I didn't want to be an investigator. We need to let the police do their work. I didn't want to interfere with that."

Q. Many parishioners have told us they don't understand that. They're asking what took so long for you to take action?

A. "I was trying to respect somebody's rights and reputation," Sample said. "Innocent until proven guilty."

"From the beginning, I knew at some point action would be taken. I had no intention of letting this go," he said. "I never had any intention of not holding him accountable. In the moment, you respect the civil investigation. We'll see what they discover."

Sample said if he had thought parishioners were in danger, he would have suspended Bien sooner. "But knowing he was under scrutiny, I wasn't concerned."

Q. Where did you have Bien stay after you suspended him?

A. "I had a residence picked out for him, an isolated place, where he would be by himself," Sample said.

Bien asked if he could live somewhere with the support of friends around him, the archbishop said. Sample told Bien he could live with a priest-friend, and the vicar for clergy would keep in touch with him.

Q. Why didn't you keep closer tabs on him?

A. "We don't really have the wherewithal, the authority to put somebody under house arrest," Sample said.

Q. Why not send him to the Mount Angel Abbey and Seminary outside Portland?

A. "He had close friends here," Sample said. "I thought the best place would be with a friend. I thought he was in a good place."

Q. Did you direct the friend to alert you if Father Bien took off?

A. Sample said he did not give him any instruction. "That wasn't on my radar," he said. "It was the furthest thing from my mind" that Bien might leave the country.

Q. Why didn't you place additional restrictions on Father Bien, such as requiring him to check in often and stay in the area?

A. It was the responsibility of the police to tell Bien not to leave the country, Sample said. Monitoring him was their realm, he said.

"I directed him to stay here," Sample said. "He was restricted from any public function as a priest. I didn't expect him to disobey."

"There was nothing I could have done to prevent him from leaving," Sample said. "He was free to leave. ... Short of standing outside the door, there was nothing I could have done."

Q. Why didn't the priest-friend let you know when Father Bien had left?

A. "I don't know," Sample said. "That's a question I have, too."

Q. What contact have you had with Father Bien since his suspension?

A. The vicar for clergy was unsuccessful in reaching him after June 24, Sample said.

The week of July 13, Sample said he called to check in with Bien, but the priest didn't return his voicemail. So, the archbishop called again and left a more urgent message for him. "I'm really worried about you, please call me the minute you get this," he recalled saying.

Hearing nothing, Sample began talking to Bien's priest-friends. On July 26, one friend said Bien had gone to be with his family because the pressure was getting to him, Sample said. The one Bien was supposed to be staying with said Bien'd been feeling a lot of stress and anxiety and just needed to get away and left to stay with relatives. The friend said Bien had family in the Philippines. Bien had been communicating with his friend via email, Sample said.

The archbishop said he sent Bien an email on July 27 requesting that he return. Bien responded saying, "Thank you for your concern, I needed to be in a supportive environment," Sample recalled. The archbishop demanded to know Bien's whereabouts and how he could reach him by phone.

Bien called the archdiocese on July 29 and spoke to another bishop, who pressed him for his location, Sample said. The priest said he was in the Philippines.

Sample said he wrote to Bien on Aug. 6, requesting that the priest come to Oregon for the conclusion of the investigation. On Aug. 13, he sent another email saying, "I'm directing you to get home now." He still hasn't heard back.

Q. Was Father Bien paid after being placed on leave?

A. "Yes, he was getting paid," Sample said. "By church law, I don't have the option of not giving him support."

Without criminal charges against Bien, the archbishop had no choice, he said.

However, Bien is no longer getting paid, Sample said. "He's refusing my order for him to return," he said. "His failure to follow my order ... allows me to cut off all support."

Q. Why didn't you tell police that Father Bien had left the country?

A. "I had no directive from the police to inform them," Sample said. "I thought, 'Well, we gotta get him back.' There was nothing the police could have done to get him back either."

Sample said he had no idea Bien might be charged soon. "I was hoping that he would accede to my directive to get him to come home," he said.

Q. Do you feel that you were too trusting of Father Bien?

A. "Knowing what I know now, I wish I'd been a little more lacking in my trust," Sample said. "There's a certain innocence – perhaps naivety about him. I gave him the benefit of the doubt."

The archbishop said he would learn from this experience.



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