California Launches Investigation into Catholic Clergy Abuse
By Jennifer Wadsworth
October 20, 2018
It took decades for Joey Piscitelli to come forward with his story of abuse and another three years after that to take his accused rapist, Father Stephen Whelan, to court. But the Salesians of Don Bosco—the Catholic order that employed Whelan at a Bay Area all-boys high school where he was said to have assaulted Piscitelli from 1969 to 1971—treated the allegations as a joke.
In closing arguments during a 2006 jury trial, the Salesians compared Piscitelli to James Frey, the author who famously tried to pass off his novel A Million Little Pieces as a gritty addiction memoir. The defense produced a short video, which showed a mock book cover titled My Story of Abuse by Joey Piscitelli before flashing the word “fiction” in big, bold letters across the screen.
“They just made a mockery out of it,” Piscitelli, a 63-year-old East Bay resident, recalls. “Their lead attorney would laugh at me.”
Though he ultimately won two appeals and a $600,000 judgment, it wasn’t until a dozen years later—at 2 p.m. on Sept. 26—that he felt a measure of vindication.
That was the day last month when high-ranking officials from California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office, in response to a Sept. 8 letter from Piscitelli, summoned him, two fellow Bay Area members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests—known as SNAP—and two from bishop-accountability.org to a 20th-floor conference room in a secure building on Harrison Street in downtown Oakland.
Melanie Fontes Rainer, a special assistant and chief healthcare adviser to Becerra, and AG researcher Daniel Bertoni joined them at a long oval conference table along with a handful of investigators in expensive-looking suits. From a wide screen on the wall, about 10 other state agents teleconferenced in for the meeting.
“We did most of the talking,” Piscitelli says. “They asked us about clergy exchanging child porn on the internet, taking kids from county to county or across state lines. They wanted to know which bishops were responsible for certain decisions to relocate known abusers. They wanted to know about human trafficking, child trafficking.”
Finally, he thought, a moment of reckoning would come.
The long-running Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal burst into public view with the Boston Globe’s storied “Spotlight” investigation in 2002 and Metro Silicon Valley’s reporting on the San Jose Diocese in the early 1990s. But the recent 900-page civil grand jury report exposing extensive coverups involving 300 “predator priests” abusing 1,000 children at six dioceses in Pennsylvania seems to mark an inflection point.
While individual priests have been charged with crimes by local police and some complicit superiors pushed into retirement by the powers that be, the U.S. government never probed the criminality of higher-ranking church leadership or organizational practices that exposed children to known abusers.
With the Justice Department launching a federal inquiry into clergy abuse in Pennsylvania this past month, law enforcement has fundamentally altered its relationship with the U.S. Catholic Church by reclaiming authority from the Vatican to police for its stateside criminal activities. David Hickton, former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, told CNN that based on questions authorities are asking about human trafficking and child porn, he believes prosecutors are planning a racketeering case against church officials—the same tactic used to take down organized crime syndicates.
Now, it appears that Becerra’s agents are looking into similar problems in California, which houses the largest population of Catholic clergy and parishioners in the country.
‘A CULTURE OF SECRECY’
Renewed public outrage and intense legal scrutiny prompted Catholic church officials to make an effort to come clean. When the San Jose Diocese last week released the names of 15 priests credibly accused of sexual misconduct and pedophilia, Bishop Patrick McGrath said the move marked the end of “a culture of secrecy in the church” and the start of an era of transparency and accountability.
Events over the ensuing days made McGrath’s gesture look like something else entirely—less a show of good faith than a cynical attempt to get ahead of a fast-developing story and an unprecedented multi-jurisdictional criminal probe into clergy abuse.
Most of the abuse alleged against the list of 15 priests took place decades ago, with the most recent case in the early 2000s. Only six of the named priests are still alive: Don Flickinger, Robert Gray, Angel Mariano, Alexander Larkin, Phil Sunseri and Hernan Toro. Seven had not previously been publicly identified as abusers. At least two—Toro, who’s in San Jose’s Main Jail on new molestation charges, and Leonel Noia—were reassigned to the ministry even after being criminally convicted of sex abuse.
It quickly became clear, however, that McGrath left a lot out.
The diocese failed to mention clergy accused of abusing adults. It also failed to name priests not directly authorized by the diocese, such as Society of St. Pius X priest Benedict Van der Putten, who allegedly molested a teen girl in 2000 at St. Aloysius Retreat House in Los Gatos.
Last week, the Mercury News published an expose about an exorcist at Santa Clara’s Our Lady of Peace accused of sexually abusing a rape survivor from late 2011 through 2012. The priest, Rev. Gerardus Hauwert Jr., reportedly offered to help the victim when she went to confession seeking forgiveness for a trauma-induced sex addiction.
Two days later, Jeff Anderson & Associates, a Minnesota-based law firm, unveiled a 66-page report naming 263 priests in San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco dioceses credibly accused of sexually abusing kids. Using open-source data, the first-of-its-kind report identifies 135 accused abusers in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, 95 in Oakland and 33 in the San Jose diocese.
The Bay Area dioceses “subjected its parishioners to a public safety nightmare,” the Anderson report claims, calling the San Jose Diocese a “dumping ground” for “deviant priests.”
Historically, the Bay Area dioceses, like many of their counterparts throughout the state and around the nation, knew full well that priests endangered children and vulnerable adults but chose to keep their crimes secret, according to the Anderson report. Strict internal policies kept the scope of the problem hidden from the public throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, despite government mandated reporting laws.
Over the past 15 years, policymakers have resisted laws to extend the statute of limitations for abuse survivors. Gov. Jerry Brown, who trained to be a Jesuit priest, vetoed two such bills, to the dismay of SNAP and other victim advocacy groups.
Jeff Anderson, who represents sexual assault survivor Thomas Emens in a suit filed earlier this month in Los Angeles County Superior Court against all 12 of California’s Catholic bishops, including San Jose’s McGrath, says the church continues to hide information about sexually abusive priests. The lawsuit claims that the bishops continue to move problem priests between and among dioceses without notifying the community.
That shuffling around makes it difficult to determine their whereabouts—even now.
“As far as I know,” Piscitelli says, “my abuser is still out there. And that’s a shame.”