Oakland diocese sat on secret of five priests’ abuse of kids for years

By John Woolfolk
Mercury News
February 20, 2019

Oakland Diocese chancellor Steve Wilcox is photographed at his office in Oakland, Calif., on Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019. The Oakland Diocese released the names of 45 priests, deacons and religious brothers who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors and who have lived in Diocese of Oakland going back to January 13, 1962. The Diocese of Oakland includes Alameda and Contra Costa Counties. There are 45 names on the list. Of those, 20 were priests of the Diocese of Oakland.
Photo by Jose Carlos Fajardo

Photo of Catholic priest Thomas Duong Binh-Minh.

Priest Hilary Cooper.

Priest Patrick Finnegan.

Priest Daniel McLeod.

Priests served for decades after alleged abuse before being removed from ministry

When the Diocese of Oakland this week named 45 priests accused of sexually abusing children, the list mostly acknowledged clergymen already notorious through dozens of legal cases and news reports over the years.

But five priests the diocese named Monday had never before been publicly linked to the child sex abuse scandal rocking the Roman Catholic church. And what little the diocese has revealed about them suggests they served for years afterward before being removed from ministry.

“What is extreme, and noteworthy, is that the Diocese of Oakland did not release the names of these predators beforehand,” said Joey Piscitelli, who was abused by another priest on the list, the Rev. Stephen Whelan, for which he sued and won a $600,000 jury award in 2006. “They released names in 2004 and 2008 and did not mention these abusers.”

Diocese of Oakland Chancellor Steve Wilcox, who handles abuse complaints, and spokeswoman Helen Osman declined to comment or provide further information about the five newly identified priests beyond what they stated publicly and released earlier this week.

The diocese’s list, a bid to restore parishioners’ trust during a week when the Vatican is holding a summit on sex abuse, says nothing about what those five priests allegedly did to end up on its list of “credibly accused” priests. They do not appear to have been subject to legal complaints.

Four of the five — Thomas Duong Binh-Minh, Hilary Cooper, Patrick Finnegan and Daniel McLeod — were priests of the Oakland diocese.

Those four ministered, committed their alleged offenses and ultimately were removed from ministry under Oakland’s first two bishops: Floyd Begin, who ran the diocese from its founding in 1962 to 1977, and John Cummins, who served until 2003.

The diocese identified a fifth listed clergyman, Virendra Coutts, only as a priest or deacon of the Salesians of Don Bosco, an international religious organization within the Catholic church, founded in India in 1928 to serve impoverished youth.

The Oakland diocese said nothing about where, when and how Coutts served within its jurisdiction of Alameda and Contra Costa counties encompassing some 500,000 Roman Catholics or when and where his alleged offense occurred.

Finnegan and McLeod have since died. The accused priests who are still living, Binh-Minh, Cooper and Coutts, could not be located for comment. The diocese said Binh-Minh and Cooper “have been directed to lives of prayer and penance” with “minimal sustenance” from the diocese but are receiving their retirement benefits. The diocese said it “does not have the ability to monitor” clergymen from other dioceses or religious orders such as Coutts, though it has barred those listed from ministry within its bounds.

Abuse victims such as Piscitelli of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, while generally supportive of bishops’ efforts at greater transparency about the church’s long history of sex abuse, have sharply criticized the Oakland diocese’s name list this week as insufficient.

They argue there are two to three times as many clergymen who have been publicly accused of sexually abusing youth and linked to the Oakland diocese. And they note that unlike the San Jose diocese, the first in the Bay Area to name its accused priests, Oakland did not offer key details such as summaries of the allegations, where they occurred, when the diocese learned of them and whether they reported them to authorities.

“Only by including all this information can we get a clearer picture of what went wrong in Oakland and what must be done now to protect children and prevent abuse,” SNAP said in a statement following the diocese’s release.

Jeff Anderson, a Minnesota lawyer whose firm represents a Los Angeles abuse victim who sued all of California’s bishops in October alleging conspiracy, has identified 95 priests associated with the Oakland diocese accused of sexual misconduct with children. But he said Binh-Minh, Cooper, Finnegan, McLeod and Coutts “are new to us, they were not on our radar.”

Of those five, Binh-Minh was most recently accused of abuse, which the diocese said occurred in 1987, three years before he was ordained in 1990, apparently when he was a deacon at St. Felicitas in San Leandro.

Afterward, Binh-Minh worked as an associate pastor at St. Philip Neri in Alameda, St. Mary Immaculate in Oakland and St. Mary/St. Francis de Sales in Oakland, as a parochial vicar at Our Lady Queen of the World in Pittsburg. He then served as pastor at Our Lady of Good Counsel in San Leandro and St. Anthony in Oakland before being removed from ministry in April 2002.

The diocese said Binh-Minh was last known to be living in Concord.

The diocese said Cooper was accused of abuse in 1978, two years after joining the Oakland diocese, where he started as an associate pastor at St. Cyril in Oakland. From there he went on to serve as pastor at St. Bernard and St. Paschal in Oakland, administrator at St. David in Richmond, pastor at St. Mark in Richmond, associate pastor at Queen of all Saints in Concord and pastor at St. Anthony in Oakland before being removed from ministry in 1995. The diocese did not indicate his present whereabouts.

Tim Stier, who was a priest for 25 years in the Oakland Diocese before leaving in frustration and becoming a SNAP volunteer, said he had known Cooper as “a very friendly and bright, engaging guy.” He didn’t know about any abuse complaints but knew Cooper later was “sidelined,” suggesting there may have been a complaint. He did not know the other four newly identified alleged abusers.

The diocese said Finnegan was accused of abuse in the “1960s” and again in 1973 — curiously, the year after it said he was removed from ministry in February 1972. He had been associate pastor at St. Ambrose in Berkeley and pastor at St. Joseph in Pinole and died in 1980.

McLeod joined the Oakland diocese in 1970, the year after it said he abused a child. He served as associate pastor at Christ the King in Pleasant Hill and St. Michael in Livermore and pastor at St. Anthony in Oakley before his 1987 retirement and removal from ministry. He died in 2001.

It was unclear whether the diocese’s disclosure about the five priests previously unconnected to sex abuse has stirred memories or discomfort among the parishes where they had served long ago. Phone calls and emails to several members of parish councils and other worshipers now active in those churches went unanswered.

But Stier is calling for “accountability” from the diocese, under Bishop Michael Barber since 2013, for how past leaders such as Cummins, now 90, handled abuse complaints. And Anderson, whose client is suing the state’s bishops, said the latest disclosure only raises new questions.

“They always do whatever they think they can just get by with; they make a minimum effort of disclosure,” Anderson said. “I call it a half truth, which I call a whole lie until they come clean.”



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