I-TEAM EXCLUSIVE: California Attorney General looking into priest sexual abuse

By Dan Noyes
October 21, 2018

[with video]

The ABC7 News I-Team has learned the California Attorney General's Office is looking into the issue of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Since Pennsylvania announced the results of its massive grand jury investigation in August, the question's been -- when will California take action?

We contacted the AG's Office back in August, to find out if they are investigating clergy sexual abuse. Their answer? "We can't comment on, even to confirm or deny, a potential or ongoing investigation." But now, we have details on some steps they're taking to tackle the issue.

Wednesday, September 26th, 2pm, on the 20th floor of the state office building in Oakland. High-level staff of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra met to consider how to investigate child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

Joey Piscitelli was there.

Joey Piscitelli: "My impression by talking to them is they've already launched something."

Dan Noyes: "The question is what, right?"

Joey Piscitelli: "I think they've seriously looked into investigating and how they're going to go about doing it."

Piscitelli joined two other members of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests or SNAP, and two people from Bishop, the largest online archive of clergy abuse information. Special Assistant to the Attorney General Melanie Rainer led the meeting. AG Researcher Daniel Bertoni was there, with a roster of heavy hitters joining by video conference.

"We had the head of civil, the head of criminal, the head of sexual crimes," Survivors' advocate Dan McNevin told us. He walked the group through his Powerpoint on "Child Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church in California". It said SNAP estimates 1700 to 2,100 priests have abused children in the state, but they have been able to identify only 520 of them by name. McNevin predicts the number of known victims would soar if the Attorney General launched an investigation.

"That helps law enforcement," said McNevin. "It helps victims' advocates, it helps victims themselves begin to heal."

Before the Pennsylvania grand jury investigation in August concluded there were "credible allegations" against more than 300 "predator priests", involving more than a thousand victims.

Before the Boston Catholic Church Crisis in 2002 that became the Academy Award-winning film "Spotlight".

There was the Northern California clergy abuse crisis.

Dan Noyes questioned the priest asking, "Father Timmons, what do you say to all those young men now?"

In 1995, a series of I-Team reports led to a prison sentence for Father Gary Timmons who ran a summer camp in the Mendocino wilderness.

Dan Noyes also found Father Austin Peter Keegan working in Mexican orphanages. The lawsuit against him for child sexual abuse in the Bay Area later settled.

Dan Noyes asked the priest about his victims, "How could you betray their trust?"

We also reported how Santa Rosa Bishop Mark Hurley handled secret files he kept on pedophile priests.

"They're destroyed," Hurley said in a 1995 deposition. "Those files, usually when a bishop leaves, they're destroyed."

Another bishop, Patrick Ziemann, had to resign after the I-Team revealed he kept a priest on beeper for sex and after we published a recording of their phone conversation.

Bishop Ziemann: "You know the times we were intimate physically?"

Father Jorge Salas: "Yeah, all the times I had to sleep with you."

Bishop Ziemann: "Uh huh. It's been my fault, and I am sorry for that 'cause I don't think you wanted to do that."

There is so much for Attorney General Becerra to investigate, but in that meeting last month, his staff reportedly said they won't be able to launch a statewide grand jury investigation, the way Pennsylvania did.

Dan McNevin told us, "They would need to work with every county to have that district attorney start a grand jury process, which is what New York is doing."

Joey Piscitelli added, "What they said they could do was have separate investigations by each county and pull that information together and share it."

Working on the framework, but the attorney general is taking this very seriously. As he told a news conference last month, "We will take a back seat to no one when it comes to protecting our people." More to come.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.