Lawyers Discuss Molest Allegations Windsor Priest Placed on Leave

By Robert Digitale
Press Democrat
November 21, 1996

Saying he is trying to avoid a court battle, the lawyer for three men accusing the Rev. Vincent O'Neill of molesting them as teenage boys in the late 1970s met Wednesday with an attorney for the Catholic Church.

Attorney Michael Meadows of Walnut Creek and church attorney Paul Gaspari said they discussed the allegations against O'Neill, a North Coast priest for 25 years who quietly left his position as pastor at Windsor's Our Lady of Guadalupe Church two months ago.

They are trying to resolve the accusations against O'Neill without legal action "instead of rushing right into court and fighting to the death," Meadows said.

Wednesday's meeting took place at Gaspari's office in San Francisco.

Gaspari confirmed this week that O'Neill, 51, had been removed as pastor and placed on administrative leave in September after Bishop Patrick Ziemann learned of the allegations and began an investigation.

His three accusers, now grown men, say they were altar boys at different Sonoma County parishes when O'Neill first molested them. Meadows has maintained the molestations were "extremely serious and occurred over a long period of time."

O'Neill has yet to respond publicly to the allegations. Church officials have declined to say where he is.

O'Neil is the fourth North Coast priest in the past two years to face accusations of molesting teen-age boys. The church has paid settlements of more than $2 million to victims.

Catholic parishioners and fellow priests didn't learn the reason for O'Neill's departure until the story became public Wednesday.

After O'Neill dropped out of sight in mid-September, church members were told O'Neill was taking time off for rest and meditation. Last weekend, parishioners attending Masses received a letter from O'Neill that announced his departure from the parish but gave no reasons.

Ziemann declined as late as Monday night to comment publicly on the growing rumors that O'Neill had left the parish amid molest allegations. On Tuesday, Ziemann directed Gaspari to confirm the church was looking into the allegations and had placed O'Neill on administrative leave until it concludes an investigation.

Parishioners reacted Wednesday to the news with varying degrees of sadness and skepticism.

Darlene Collins, a parishioner who worked with O'Neill on an AIDS outreach program that O'Neill set up, said she's not rushing to judgment.

"I'm just shocked and surprised," she said. "They are allegations. I'm just trying to keep an open mind."

Collins described O'Neill as "dedicated, very hard-working, a real good guy."

She doesn't believe it would have made any difference if church officials had been open about the reason behind O'Neill's absence.

"We go to church to pray. I'm not sure what purpose it would have served to have told everybody," she said.

Another parishioner, Gene McCreary, said, "It's a sad thing these type of things happen. All we can do is pray for him. Everybody is a sinner."

Gaspari maintained the bishop properly handled the entire matter. Ziemann acted immediately after learning of the allegations. At first the three men asked that the church say nothing, he said. After Meadows spoke to reporters, Ziemann authorized Gaspari's comments.

"The burden the bishop bears is he can't always perform his ministry publicly," Gaspari said. The investigation remains "at the earliest stages and we have to be respectful of the rights of both the accusers and the accused."

Until the investigation concludes, Ziemann has directed that O'Neill remain where the priest cannot be accused of another molestation and where any boys cannot be "placed in harm's way," Gaspari said. "I can assure you that was done."

Meadows concurred that the church had acted promptly and properly in dealing with O'Neill -unlike an earlier occasion when he said previous church officials failed to take victims seriously or to remove the offending priest.

The three accusers understand their identities will become public should they file a lawsuit, Meadows said. All three declined a request Wednesday for an interview.

The three men live in the community and fear publication of their names will bring antagonism from parishioners, Meadows said.

Their fears are justified, he maintained, given the reaction other victims received after they publicly accused Gary Timmons, the former priest sentenced to eight years in prison for fondling two altar boys.

Meadows and Gaspari previously faced off in a molestation lawsuit against Timmons. While the church settled the civil lawsuit, the prosecution was public and many of the victims attended the criminal court proceedings.

More than a dozen men accused Timmons of sexually abusing them during the past 25 years, but prosecutors dropped many of the charges because the legal deadlines had passed for prosecuting the decades-old abuse.


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