By Guy Kovner
May 12, 2002
Donald Wren Kimball, the charismatic priest from Sonoma County, strode through the 1970s and '80s with a celebrity's style and a national audience for his radio shows packing Jesus Christ's message with a rock 'n' roll punch.
Nobody else carried Catholic youth ministry to the heights Kimball hit, captivating teens with music and building a wave among church youth that continued to swell through the 1990s and into today.
"Everything was falling into place for Don. Things were going good," said an old family friend, who had watched Kimball grow up in Santa Rosa, an only child of a World War II-widowed mother.
But life unraveled in a rush for the silver-tongued priest, poet, author and college professor who now sits in Sonoma County Jail with an ugly addition to his resume: sex offender.
Kimball, 58, faces sentencing Wednesday for two counts of lewd conduct with a 13-year-old girl at St. John's rectory in Healdsburg in 1981. The fifth North Coast priest to be disciplined and the second convicted of molesting children since 1994, Kimball could serve up to 14 years in state prison. That's the recommendation the Probation Department will submit to the judge Wednesday.
Kimball is one of at least 75 priests nationwide, including John Geoghan of Boston, to be convicted and jailed for sex abuse of children. At least 177 priests have resigned or been removed, and pressure is mounting on cardinals and bishops to turn away from secrecy to policies of cooperation and openness.
Kimball's conversion in just five years from pied piper to public enemy is a stunning personal fall from grace.
In his 1995 book, "Driftwood: Prayers for Beached Travelers," one of Kimball's inspirational poems, titled "Off the Hook," appears now prophetic. It ended:
My soul is dark.
Answer the phone.
Don Kimball's dark side, his victims say, ran apace with his rise to fame. At his trial, eight women testified that Kimball had raped or molested them decades ago in parishes from Santa Rosa to Eureka.
In 1981, when Kimball flew to New York to accept his second national award — called a Gabriel — from a Catholic broadcasters association, he was also molesting Ellen Brem, then 13, in his room at the Healdsburg rectory.
In an interview on CNN last month, Kimball said the priestly vow of celibacy "never made sense" to him. Prosecutor Gary Medvigy called Kimball a "perfect pedophile" for skillfully luring adolescents into sex.
Attempts to contact Kimball through his attorney were unsuccessful.
Roberta Saum, one of the witnesses at his trial last month, said Kimball seduced her into a six-year affair that started in 1976, when she was 15, and spanned the time he was molesting Brem.
Saum, a troubled girl living in a foster home, said she was vulnerable to Kimball, a hip, charming priest who had just arrived from Eureka. His sermons at Resurrection Church in Santa Rosa, never more than eight minutes long, touched the young teen's wounded psyche.
"I just thought he was so cool," said Saum, now 41 and living in the Sierra foothills. "I was his perfect victim."
Saum longed for a father figure, and Kimball, with his smooth manners and radio deejay's voice, provided it. Kimball became her boyfriend, and they had sex until she was 21, she testified. After she turned 18, the secret affair became more open, as they dined and traveled together.
People wonder why she continued the relationship into her adulthood, Saum said. She realizes now that "he is so manipulative. It was like he brainwashed me when I was young."
The affair ended in 1982, when Saum married her first husband. Kimball performed the ceremony.
Saum said she remained fond of Kimball until 1999, when Santa Rosa attorney MaryClare Lawrence sent Saum a list of people who were accusing Kimball of sexual molestation. Saum said she knew some of them and she was shocked.
It would take a year for her to realize how badly she had been abused. But any lingering fondness for Kimball was shattered when he asked her to testify on his behalf in a lawsuit filed by four plaintiffs.
Beginning of the downfall
Allegations against Kimball first became public in 1997, when the lawsuit was filed by Ellen Brem, her brother, Neil Brem, and Lorraine Brunz, joined later by plaintiff Chris Ovard. Criminal charges were filed in 2000, about two weeks after the Santa Rosa Diocese settled the suit with a $1.6 million payment to the plaintiffs and to seed a fund for other victims.
At the time, Kimball said he was "outraged" and that he had evidence to refute the criminal charges. In fact, Kimball had been quietly suspended from clerical duties by former Santa Rosa Bishop John Steinbock 10 years earlier, in 1990, three years after Steinbock first heard sex abuse allegations against the celebrity priest.
During the trial in March and in previous depositions related to the lawsuit, Steinbock said he learned of Kimball's alleged sexual misconduct in 1987 but made little effort to follow up on the information. Steinbock testified that Kimball in 1990 admitted having sexual contact with six underage girls. The bishop said he told Kimball he would have to give up his youth ministry, and suspended Kimball after he refused a reassignment.
Steinbock, who left Santa Rosa in 1991 and is now bishop in Fresno, has declined comment on the case. Church officials have asked Kimball to resign, but agreed not to pursue it until after his sentencing.
Feelings of shock
Friends and former colleagues were shocked by the revelations, year after year, turning the picture of Kimball from helper to sinner to criminal.
"It's pretty disturbing," said the family friend, a 90-year-old man whose wife was close to Kimball's mother, Irene, who died in 1991.
He recalled that Irene Francis O'Leary came from Iowa City to work in the Mare Island Navy shipyard during World War II. There she met and quickly married Joseph Kimball, a Navy machinist's mate.
Don Kimball, born Dec. 10, 1943, never met his father, who was killed in action in the Pacific. His mother moved from Alameda County to Santa Rosa so Don could attend "a good Catholic school," the friend said.
The elderly man offered no excuse for Kimball, who attended St. Rose School in Santa Rosa. "I don't know what possessed him," the friend said.
Dave Henderson, a former priest in the Santa Rosa Diocese, said he was "absolutely and totally shocked" by the revelations that both Kimball and Gary Timmons were child molesters.
Timmons, convicted of sexually abusing young boys at an Eel River church camp and in parish bedrooms in Santa Rosa, was sentenced to eight years in prison after pleading no contest before trial in 1996. He served four years and was released in 2000.
"Everything I've read leads me to believe they were guilty as charged," said Henderson, who left the clergy to get married in 1978. He said he is glad to see the sex abuse scandal aired, and thinks any guilty priest should be removed from parish ministry, if not from the clergy altogether.
A strict upbringing
Henderson, a Sonoma resident, was a classmate of Kimball's at St. Joseph's Seminary in Mountain View. Both graduated from eighth grade at Catholic parochial schools — Kimball from St. Rose and Henderson from St. Mary's School in Ukiah — and enrolled in a class of 107 boys at St. Joseph at age 14 in 1957.
At the time, 14 was the accepted age for boys to begin preparation for the priesthood, and the rules at St. Joseph were strict, confining the boys to the campus and prohibiting them from dates or socializing with girls, even over summer vacation.
"It was taken for granted that you were on a separate track for life," Henderson said.
Two of the Santa Rosa Diocese's five bishops — Daniel Walsh and former Bishop Mark Hurley — attended St. Joseph, which closed in 1989, and then St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park, as did Henderson. Kimball left St. Joseph after two years and finished high school at St. Vincent de Paul in Petaluma in 1961. Kimball was ordained at St. Eugene's Cathedral in Santa Rosa in 1969.
In retrospect, Henderson said it was amazing that young seminarians were neither screened to see if they were psychologically ready for the vow of celibacy, nor schooled in the pressures of remaining chaste.
"Celibacy is fine for those who are called to it," Henderson said. "A lot of priests are not cut out for celibacy."
The Rev. Gerald Coleman, president/rector at St. Patrick's, acknowledged that decades ago adolescent seminarians were accepted with nothing more than a recommendation from a local pastor and passing an academic test.
Now, he said, St. Patrick's accepts only college graduates who undergo psychological testing and interviews, including questions about sexual preference, sexual experience and whether the candidate has been abused or an abuser.
The five-year program at St. Patrick's includes mandatory classes on celibacy, sexuality and sexual abuse. Coleman said the new standards and curriculum were adopted 10 to 15 years ago, prior to the current scandal. The average age of incoming seminarians is 32.
Henderson agreed that seminary training is vastly improved, but he said the Catholic clergy still includes many men who are "products of a flawed system."
Kimball, in the CNN interview broadcast the day after he was convicted of abusing Brem, admitted that he repeatedly broke his vow of celibacy. He also said the clerical collar made him attractive to women.
"I wasn't prepared for putting on that uniform, walking out into real life and discovering the number of women who were coming on to me," he told interviewer Connie Chung.
Saum said Kimball is a predator, not a Lothario. His comment about being attractive to women is "just a bunch of bull
," she said.
Teens tune in
Kimball's poetry was part of a modern-day ministry aimed at teens. But it is also reflective of his own life, including the origin of his music-driven ministry:
I can remember many happy times,
like the day I met my first disc jockey
at a bongo-drum-playing contest in Santa Rosa.
One of the big-time San Francisco disc jockeys was in town,
hosting a department store promotion.
I was so nervous,
I sweated like a cold bottle of root beer.
But I won third place,
and had never before beat on a bongo drum in my life.
Were you there, Lord,
when I discovered a new rhythm in my life?
Kimball turned to a radio pulpit early on, while working as a youth pastor in Eureka. The local radio station asked if he would do a show, and Kimball agreed — if he could mix God's word with rock 'n' roll riffs.
Teens will tune into religious broadcasting if it is well done, he said in a 1981 interview. Kimball's radio message to listeners was: "God loves them and they need to learn how to love one another," he said then. "They need to let themselves be loved and to love others."
Kimball transferred to Resurrection Parish in 1976, and honed his radio production skills at KFRC in San Francisco. He founded Cornerstone Media Inc., a nonprofit corporation that distributed his half-hour show, "Reflections," played on about 300 stations, he said in 1981, and Gabriel award-winning "Codebreakers," 60-second spots mixing rock music with voice-overs done by Sonoma County teens.
In 1987, Press Democrat columnist Gaye LeBaron wrote that Kimball was "a prophet who is largely without honor in his own country." "Reflections" was carried on only one local station — at 5:30 a.m. Sundays — and "Codebreakers" were not aired here at all.
But in Catholic youth ministry circles, Kimball was a trailblazer, said Bob McCarty, a 27-year youth ministry veteran. The church takes youth outreach seriously, he said, and Kimball gave it a heavy bass beat in the 1970s and '80s.
"Music was an avenue for young people to encounter their God," said McCarty, executive director of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, a network of 175 diocesan youth offices across the country. Kimball toured the musical avenue better than anyone, before or after him, McCarty said.
His influence still debated
Now at youth ministry conferences people who have never heard of Don Kimball talk about using music to tap youth culture, he said. McCarty said he knew Kimball professionally, having heard him talk at conferences, and was stunned by his downfall.
"There's a real sadness in this whole thing," McCarty said.
But the Catholic Church is still benefiting from Kimball's work, McCarty said, citing growing attendance at the National Catholic Youth Conference as a yardstick. The most recent gathering drew 24,000 youths to Indianapolis in December. A decade earlier, the 1991 conference, also at Indianapolis, had drawn 7,000 youths, and attendance made quantum leaps in 1995, 1997 and 1999.
At the parish level, McCarty said, youth involvement in camps and other programs is up. "The whole ministry is very exciting," he said.
Don Kimball's videotapes and books are still listed in diocese resource centers as far away as Nebraska and New York. But the material is no longer available from some centers, like the Diocese of Albany, N.Y.
The music, hairstyles and clothes of the 1980s don't appeal to teens of the new millennium. "The kids laugh at it," said Pat Taaffe, coordinator of the Albany resource center. "It's old stuff."
Kimball's poems, however, are timeless. A reflection called "What Do They Want?" says:
I wonder if Jesus really does need me or need anybody?
If he does, I'd better start trying a little harder.
I don't think right now I make a very good partner.
Ellen Brem has no sympathy.
"He's a lost soul," she said.
News researcher Michele Van Hoeck contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
PHOTO: 1 Brem family photo
1 no credit
2 by CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat
1 by Jeff Kan Lee/Press Democrat
1. Don Kimball poses with Neil Brem, left, now 38, and his younger sister Ellen, now 34, in a photo taken at Resurrection Parish in Santa Rosa in the late 1970s. A civil lawsuit brought by the Brems and others in 1997 ultimately led to criminal charges. Kimball was convicted of molesting Ellen Brem when she was 13.
2. Don Kimball was a charismatic national figure long before scandal
3. Victim Ellen Brem, middle, holds hands with her mother, Joanne Brem, left, and a sister-in-law on April 17 as they wait to hear the verdict in the Kimball trial. Kimball faces sentencing Wednesday for molesting Brem when she was 13.
4. Don Kimball is handcuffed to a wheelchair April 23 after he pleaded innocent to charges that he assaulted a photographer.
5. After his trial, former Santa Rosa priest Don Kimball told CNN that his collar made him attractive to women.
Kimball's Rise and Fall
Dec. 10, 1943: Donald Wren Kimball born.
1940s and 50s: Educated at St. Rose parochial school in Santa Rosa.
1957 to 1959: Attended St. Joseph's Seminary in Mountain View, entering at age 14.
1961: Graduated from St. Vincent de Paul High in Petaluma.
1969: Ordained as priest at St. Eugene's Cathedral in Santa Rosa.
1969 to 1976: Assigned to Sacred Heart Church and St. Bernard Church in Eureka
1976 to 1979: Associate pastor at Santa Rosa's Resurrection Church and assistant director of Catholic Youth Ministry, Diocese of Santa Rosa.
1979 to 1981: Administrator of High School Youth Ministry for Santa Rosa Diocese and associate pastor at St. John the Baptist Church, Healdsburg.
1990: Santa Rosa Bishop John Steinbock, who led the diocese at the time, removed Kimball from priestly duties after Kimball allegedly told Steinbock of having sexual contact with six underage girls.
1997 and 1998: Kimball sued by two women and a man in 1997 and a man in 1998 who claimed he molested them during Catholic Church-sponsored activities when they were juveniles in the 1970s. The suit described incidents that reportedly occurred during Kimball's tenure at Resurrection Parish and as administrator of the diocese's High School Youth Ministry.
2000: Santa Rosa Diocese reaches $1.6 million agreement settling the suits against Kimball; criminal charges filed 17 days later.
March 12: Criminal trial against Kimball begins in Sonoma County Superior Court. He was charged with two counts of lewd conduct with a girl under age 14 at St. John's rectory in Healdsburg in 1981 and raping another girl at Resurrection Parish in 1977.
April 16: Jurors find Kimball guilty of two counts of lewd conduct with a child under age 14 and not guilty of one count of rape. Sentencing is scheduled for Wednesday.
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