Priest Sex Abuse Report Reveals Secret Bay Area Case
By Matthias Gafni
September 3, 2018
|A 2003 photo shows the St. Aloysius Retreat in Los Gatos, near the Lexington Reservoir, where a former priest around 2000 was found to have abused a girl, according to the recently released Pennsylvania grand jury report on Catholic priest sex abuse. (Len Vaughn-Lahman/Bay Area News Group)|
Tucked away in Pennsylvania‘s explosive August grand jury report on widespread sex abuse by Catholic priests is the previously untold story of Rev. Benedict Van der Putten, who as part of a traditionalist priest society in Los Gatos 18 years ago was said to have molested one teen girl and tried with another. Then he was whisked away to Europe.
The first Los Gatos abuse allegedly occurred around 2000 at the St. Aloysius Retreat in the wooded hills near the Lexington Reservoir, where priests from the Society of St. Pius X practice a conservative, pre-Vatican II brand of Catholicism with the Latin Mass. The society is not recognized by the Roman Catholic church and St. Aloysius is not overseen by the San Jose diocese.
Local authorities, acting on a tip from Placer County the following year, say they investigated the allegations but were unable to make a criminal case. There are no indications that St. Aloysius ever directly contacted police about Van der Putten.
Following the Los Gatos incidents, the society quickly sent Van der Putten to its international headquarters in Switzerland, and reported him to the Vatican, which later relayed the alleged misconduct to a Pennsylvania diocese where he was seeking reinstatement the following year. That was derailed after he allegedly confessed to molesting another teen in 2001. While he was in Europe, the society expelled him.
“I think he left a very bad impression,” St. Aloysius Retreat head priest Father Thomas Asher said Thursday by phone. “His behavior and what has come out is obviously deplorable and indefensible.”
The allegations are not the first involving South Bay clergy. In 2005, the Diocese of San Francisco paid $21 million to 15 victims of sex abuse by members of Bay Area churches. Among the alleged abusers were Rev. Arthur Harrison, a pastor at St. Francis Cabrini parish in San Jose, and Rev. Joseph Pritchard, a pastor at St. Martin of Tours parish in San Jose.
Asher, who came to St. Aloysius in 2014, distanced it from the San Jose diocese, as did diocese spokeswoman Liz Sullivan.
“Saint Aloysius is not Roman Catholic,” Sullivan said. “It has no connection with the Pope and has no connection with the Diocese of San Jose. The diocese and Bishop (Patrick) McGrath had no knowledge of this Van der Putten business and do not know Van der Putten.”
Investigators with the Santa Clara County Sheriff investigated an abuse complaint involving Van der Putten at St. Aloysius, Sgt. Richard Glennon said. The November 2001 complaint involving a girl who was then 16 came from Placer County child protection authorities, he said.
“We investigated it, spoke to various parents, witnesses,” Glennon said. But no one, including the alleged victim, “came forward with specific allegations.”
“There wasn’t enough hard statements that we could bring a case,” Glennon said. Because of that, the department as a matter of policy would not release its records of the complaint. But Glennon encouraged anyone with new information to come forward.
The 1,400-page grand jury report in Pennsylvania looked at six Catholic dioceses over seven decades and found more than 300 priests had sexually abused children but were protected by a church hierarchy. The probe, one of the broadest looks into the scandal to date, identified 1,000 child victims, but warned that there were probably thousands more. The grand jury reviewed more than two million documents during the 18-month investigation.
The South Bay allegations only came to light in the Pennsylvania report because Van der Putten worked briefly in the Scranton diocese and had applied to become a diocesan priest there in 2001. The Vatican alerted Scranton Bishop James Timlin about the Los Gatos abuse allegations and Van der Putten’s application was denied.
Pope Benedict XVI later defrocked him.
Van der Putten did not respond to attempts to reach him through phones and emails associated to him through public records. The Scranton diocese cut contact with him after April 2002 and it is unclear what happened to him since.
According to the report, Van der Putten committed “indecent acts” with a 15-year-old girl in Los Gatos and attempted to abuse a second 17-year-old girl while serving at St. Aloysius. The report noted that there was “no description” of those acts, but said that Van der Putten later admitted to Bishop Timlin that he had “involvement with a 16-year-old girl.”
“He advised he kissed her and caressed her breast. He also exposed his genitalia,” according to the grand jury report. “Van der Putten claimed there was ‘nothing erotic’ about the encounter, just attempts ‘to build trust.'”
Because of the discrepancy between the reported ages of his victims in the report, it’s unclear whether those “indecent acts” involved the Los Gatos girl or another victim. The Office of the Attorney General in Pennsylvania was unable to clarify.
The grand jury report found that after the first Los Gatos allegation, Van der Putten was “immediately” sent to the international headquarters for the St. Pius society in Switzerland. Once there, he was sent on sabbatical to an island monastery in Scotland. He was later expelled from the St. Pius sect.
“He left us obviously looking for a home,” Asher said.
In 2001, he joined the Society of Saint John, which the report described as disaffected Society of St. Pius X priests seeking reinstatement with the Roman Catholic church, and began working in the Scranton diocese. Bishop Timlin denied Van der Putten’s request to become a diocesan priest based on information from Rome about his past record of abuse, which Van der Putten admitted was true, according to the grand jury report.
The priest was then sent for evaluation to the Southdown Institute in Canada, a treatment facility for clergy. While there, the priest admitted to “fondling a young woman he met while on Christmas vacation in 2001,” according to the report. The facility determined Van der Putten had “predatory behavior.”
A month after the 2001 abuse, the Scranton diocese received a call from the teen’s mother reporting the sexual assault, the report said. The mother tracked Van der Putten to Sacramento where he was participating in church services. The report noted that the troubled priest had received a green light from Rome to continue delivering liturgy. There is no record in the report of the Scranton diocese telling police.
By 2002, a Boston Globe series of articles blew the priest abuse scandal wide open.
In December 2003, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sent a memo to all its bishops alerting them that Van der Putten was not allowed into the Scranton diocese “due to admitted sexual misconduct,” according to the grand jury report.
For a while, Van der Putten operated a website (www.paxvobis.org) promoting his availability for conferences, retreats and youth camps, “while stating he is a priest in good standing,” the report stated.
Dan McNevin, who was abused by a priest in Fremont, said the grand jury report’s exposure of the previously unreported Van der Putten allegations bolsters the case for a broader Pennsylvania-style probe into priest abuse. That, he said, would reveal “the complete truth about these terrible crimes and the intentional concealment of them by leaders we thought were trustworthy.”