Catholics Deal with Sex Arrests As Another Priest Faces Charges, Church's Response Shows Progress in Addressing Persistent Problem

By Marilee Enge
San Jose Mercury News
November 17, 2000

The arrest of a high-ranking San Francisco priest in the assault of a juvenile last weekend highlights a dark and painful problem for the Roman Catholic Church, but also demonstrates how much has changed, Catholic activists and clergy said this week.

The Rev. Bernard Dabbene, a priest for 34 years and an official with the Archdiocese of San Francisco, was arraigned Thursday on charges that he sexually assaulted a 17-year-old boy he picked up Saturday in the Mission district.

The case is the third high-profile abuse allegation involving the archdiocese to make news this year, and came as a former priest in Santa Rosa was in court facing charges that he raped and molested children in his parish 20 years ago.

Catholic abuse victims say this latest allegation is an example of what they call a "sex abuse crisis" in their church. Catholic officials, however, say incidents of sexual abuse by the clergy are no more common than those by others in society.

A San Francisco native and longtime Catholic educator, Dabbene, 63, was immediately relieved of his priestly duties and suspended from his job at the archdiocese, where he was a liaison to 89 parishes. He remains free on bail and has not yet entered a plea.

Clergy and educators said the church has taken great strides in the past decade to reduce the risk of misconduct by priests and to deal with allegations swiftly when they occur. Seminaries conduct psychological screenings before accepting candidates and offer extended instruction in human sexuality. Parish officials follow strict guidelines when reports of abuse surface.

"We've been working really hard to put in procedures," said Barbara Flannery, chancellor of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland. "We have independent committees to review the cases. It's not just under the old boys club approach."

Typically, the accused is immediately suspended from his duties and the allegations are reported to authorities if they appear to be criminal, she said. Later, a committee of church officials and lay workers conducts an inquiry. The group then follows up with alleged victims and monitors the priest's behavior.

The Oakland diocese, for example, gets one or two reports of abuse a year, usually involving priests who are dead or retired, Flannery said.

Earlier this year, Flannery organized an unprecedented public apology in which the Oakland diocese asked for forgiveness of those who have suffered sexual misconduct by clergy or other church employees. Many victims of clerical abuse are now in their 40s and 50s and looking for acknowledgment of what happened as part of their healing process, Flannery said.

Victims and church officials alike said there is an important distinction between the abuse of young congregants by a parish priest and the charges brought against Bernard Dabbene.

He was arrested Saturday night when police spotted his car at 25th and Illinois streets, parked in a secluded area that officers say is frequented by drug dealers and prostitutes. They noticed that both the driver and a youth had their pants unzipped.

Boy, priest remember differently

The youth told the police he had been running from gang members when a man stopped and asked if he needed a ride. He said the driver refused to take him where he asked, unzipped his pants and tried to grab his genitals. When police arrived, he said that he was trying to flee but that the driver tried to hold him.

Dabbene told the officers the boy approached him and asked if he knew where he could get a job. He said he drove around with the boy, talking about work opportunities, before parking at 25th and Illinois. But Dabbene said he realized that it was not a good place to be and was preparing to leave.

He is charged with two felonies -- intent to commit oral copulation andfalse imprisonment -- and two misdemeanors -- sexual battery and molesting a minor.

The allegation is part of a larger problem in the church, said Phil Saviano, a leader in the organization Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

A system of secrecy

"I feel strongly this an important element of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church," he said. "You have an organization that publicly opposes any efforts of gay people to have any legitimacy in society, and yet many of the men who are delivering the message of the church are gay men themselves. You end up with an organization that is layered with secrecy."

The Dabbene incident comes as the San Francisco archdiocese faces the spectacle of the trial of former priest Patrick O'Shea, who was indicted earlier this year on numerous counts of child molestation. A group of men testified before the grand jury that he'd gotten them drunk and had sex with them more than 20 years ago. O'Shea is in jail awaiting trial.

The archdiocese also settled a civil case this spring in which a teenage rectory worker accused his Burlingame priest of physical and mental abuse. After the settlement, archdiocese officials took steps to limit contact between priests and adolescents, but later reversed that policy.

Church officials maintain that these are isolated incidents and that there is no evidence that sexual misconduct is rampant in the church.

"These kind of sexual behavior problems on the part of priests are not any greater than society at large," said Maurice Healy, spokesman for the San Francisco archdiocese. "What we do have is a higher level of visibility when this occurs."


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