Sex-Abuse Scandal Opens Old Wounds; Retired Cleric Denies Molestation Charges

By David Hasemyer and Joe Cantlupe
Copley News Service [San Diego]
May 9, 2002

Jeremy Norton wept in his San Carlos home Wednesday as he recalled the sexual abuse he says a San Diego priest inflicted on him 17 years ago, when he was just a boy.

In a nearby Mission Valley retirement home, the accused priest also cried, denying the accusations and asking for mercy from God.

The lives of Norton and Father John Keith are filled with anguish: Norton for what he says Keith did to him; Keith for things he says never happened, for what he calls lies that will ruin him.

They are among the emerging number of San Diegans embroiled in a nationwide firestorm of allegations over priests' sexual misconduct that has overwhelmed the Roman Catholic Church.

The family said it received $95,000 in a 1999 out-of-court settlement with the Roman Catholic diocese of San Diego stemming from a lawsuit that accused Keith of molestation.

Family members acknowledged there was no admission of wrongdoing on Keith's part. They had previously signed a confidentiality agreement.

For Keith, 76, young Jeremy Norton was just another altar boy at St. Martin's Church in La Mesa, whom he barely remembers. He fears he's a target in a witch hunt for money.

"I'm old. I'm getting ready to die," Keith said. "I'm not a bad person. If I was evil, if I was planning to hurt people it would be different. But I'm not and I didn't do those things."

For Norton, the haunting memory of Father Keith never stops.

"I remember once we were in the car," said Norton, his voice halting and breaking into tears, "and he put his hand against my crotch. It got worse."

Norton, 29, and his family, once devout Catholics, disclosed their allegations in interviews Wednesday, saying they hoped that public discussion of an incident close to home would help heal the beleaguered church.

In a statement released Wednesday, the Diocese of San Diego acknowledged the lawsuit alleging misconduct by Keith in 1985.

"At the request of the diocese, the plaintiff (Norton's family) agreed to mediation," the statement said. "Out of respect for the privacy of the plaintiff, the diocese does not wish to provide any further details."

According to their lawsuit, Keith once took the 12-year-old boy out of his elementary school class without his mother's knowledge and then bought gifts for him at Toys R Us in La Mesa. Once alone, the lawsuit said, the boy was forced to fondle the priest.

The family said Keith molested the boy several times, although their lawsuit refers to only one instance.

Norton, who family members said is learning-disabled, has been undergoing therapy and was "in the process of recalling the full nature and extent of Keith's conduct," the lawsuit states.

Years ago, Carmen Gresens, Norton's mother, said, she repeatedly complained to church officials about Keith but nothing was done.

"They wanted to silence us," Gresens said.

Eventually, the family filed the suit.

During the interview Wednesday, Gresens clutched her husband Roger's hand as they listened to Norton discuss the allegations. She said the ordeal strained their marriage.

Occasionally, Gresens held her face in her hands and blamed herself for the incidents, which she said devastated her "fragile" son.

"I should have done more," she said. "I always told my son to trust in a priest."

Keith, who said he is a recovering alcoholic, said he thought he put the lawsuit long behind him, barely thinking about it.

"I swear to God none of this happened," Keith said. "But I have an idea he was convinced it happened, by his mother."

He said he believes the motive behind the lawsuit was to get money to help Norton with the disability he was born with, suggesting Norton's mother put her son up to making the allegations. Gresens denied that claim.

The priest has been on retired status since 1990 and is not active in the ministry, according to the diocese.

Now frail and nearly blind, Keith said all he wanted to do was live out his days in the tranquillity of retirement, finding solace in his faith and in contentment that he dedicated himself to serving others.

When read the graphic allegations of molestation in the lawsuit, Keith gasped and said, "Dear Lord, no."


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