New Sexual Abuse Claims against Two Oakland Diocese Priests
By Candice Nguyen, Michael Bott and Mark Villarreal
NBC Bay Area
January 29, 2021
New sexual abuse allegations within the Oakland Diocese are publicly coming to light for the first time after being included in a lawsuit against the Diocese that settled late last year for $3.5 million, without any admission of liability.
The accusations come from a former seminarian, 28, who had previously alleged in 2019 that he was raped by Livermore priest Fr. Michael Van Dinh three years ago. He does not wish to be identified, so NBC Bay Area is calling him John Doe.
A police report obtained by NBC Bay Area shows Livermore police found a meth pipe and sex toys in the priest’s living quarters while investigating the alleged assault. Detectives recommended two felony charges, including sodomy by force, but the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office said there wasn’t enough evidence to prove the encounter wasn’t consensual.
Dinh remains on leave from the Diocese. Click here for NBC Bay Area’s 2019 story concerning Fr. Van Dinh.
After going through therapy for the alleged assault at the hands of Fr. Van Dinh, Doe’s attorney said he later disclosed being sexually abused by two other priests within the Diocese: Fr. Luis Lopez and Fr. Ricardo Chavez, who is now retired. Lopez is currently assigned to Fremont’s Corpus Christi Church, according to its website.
Neither priest has been publicly accused of abuse until Doe’s allegations came to light in his lawsuit.
“These were repressed memories he was trying to figure out,” said Doe’s attorney Sandra Ribera-Speed. “He had never been in therapy before.”
The claims against Fr. Lopez stem from Doe’s time at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon when he was in his early twenties. Doe says Fr. Lopez would visit the seminary, find ways to be alone with him and touch him inappropriately.
“When Fr. Lopez hugged [Doe] at the conclusion of their meeting, Fr. Lopez stuck his hands down [Doe’s] sweatpants…,” Doe’s civil complaint against the Diocese states.
But the allegations against Chavez go all the way back to Doe’s childhood, when he was an altar boy at St. Peter Martyr Parish in Pittsburg.
“The abuse that began with my client had started approximately when he was ten years old and lasted over a decade,” Ribera-Speed said. “It began with fondling…kind of moved underneath his clothing and then underneath his pants and inside of his pants.”
Ribera-Speed said she learned Father Chavez had been accused of abusing minors before while serving at San Leandro’s St. Leander Church in the 1990’s. But she alleges in the complaint that the church never investigated.
“In the 1990s, there was an eye witness report that Fr. Chavez had sexually molested several minors while he was pastor of St. Leander’s Catholic Church in San Leandro, California,” the complaint states. “Not only were these allegations against Fr. Chavez admittedly never investigated by the Diocese of Oakland in the 1990s when they were first made, but the Diocese of Oakland to this date has failed to discipline Fr. Chavez in any manner whatsoever…”
When the church learned of Doe’s new allegations against Fr. Chavez in October of 2019, Ribera-Speed said the Oakland Diocese allowed the retired priest to continue saying mass for months.
“[Bishop Michael Barber] knowingly allowed Fr. Chavez to remain in active ministry within the Diocese of Oakland where he has been permitted to assist and say Mass at several parishes, including at the parish where he abused [John Doe], St. Peter Martyr,” the complaint states.
Ribera-Speed said her client did not file a police report against either priest.
Dan McNevin, a Bay Area leader with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he's not surprised it took some time for John Doe to come forward.
"He was indoctrinated into a system of always believing in his superiors," McNevin said. "And the priest in your parish is a father-like figure in the Catholic tradition. And then when he gets to seminary, now his goal is to become a priest. And so he's very vulnerable to whatever happens at seminary."
NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit attempted to get answers from the Diocese of Oakland, but spokesperson Helen Osman declined to answer questions pertaining to either priest, or even divulge the priests’ current or past assignments within the Diocese.
In a statement, Osman said “None of the priests named in the case were defendants in the lawsuit, which had no finding or admission of liability by the priests of the Diocese.”
When NBC Bay Area asked directly if either priest had faced past allegations of abuse, the Diocese declined to answer, stating a court order sealed “documents related to the diocese’s investigation of allegations concerning priests named in the Doe lawsuit.”
Osman said the Diocese “considers all allegations of misconduct by clergy serious.”
Neither priests responded to our requests to talk with them.
Fr. Chavez is not currently included on the list published by the Diocese of priests credibly accused of sexually abusing minors.
Neither is Father Alex Castillo, who was placed on administrative leave after a 2019 accusation of sexual misconduct against a minor. Castillo fled the country, and the Diocese said it still does not know his whereabouts.
The Diocese did not report the allegation to police for more than five hours after releasing a press release stating the priest was on leave, according to information from Oakland police at the time. The Oakland Police Department said it does not currently have an active investigation into Castillo, but would not provide additional details.
“They keep secrets at all costs,” McNevin said.
McNevin says the entire Catholic Church has yet to come clean about sexual abuse within its ranks.
“[Chavez and Lopez] are new names to me,” McNevin said. “And I’m really sorry that we have more names.”
“We think and average of maybe two and a half priests per month are exposed for abusing children contemporaneously, which means that the problem isn’t in the past.
Since 2019, at least five priests from the Oakland Diocese have been accused of sexual abuse. The accusations by John Doe against Fr. Van Dinh, Fr. Chavez, and Fr. Lopez. The accusation against Fr. Castillo. And the accusation against Fr. David Vela, who in 2019, was sentenced to five years in prison after pleading no contest to lewd or lascivious acts on a child age 14 or 15.
Fr. Van Dinh was placed on leave in 2017, but his accuser went public with his allegations two years later.
McNevin said Bishop Michael Barber should be removed for his handling of recent sexual abuse allegations within the Diocese, though he's skeptical that will happen.
"What will happen is nothing," McNevin said. "If anything, he'll become a cardinal or an archbishop. What should happen is he should be fired. He should be investigated. The District Attorney should have already investigated him for whatever happened with Castillo and these other situations where priests are not reported."
Ribera-Speed said the Diocese continues to put children in danger.
"They do not I mean, quite literally, practice what they preach," Ribera-Speed said. "They are allowing these perpetrators to go out and continue to have access to more children."