Alleged Clergy Abuse Mishandled, Report Says

By Alex Friedrich
Monterey County Herald
May 17, 2002

In March 1999, a sixth-grade girl at Sacred Heart School in Salinas told a nun that the Rev. Paul Valdez had placed his hand on her groin during confession that previous December.

What happened next is an example of how not to handle a sexual-abuse allegation, according to sexual-abuse experts and the report of a police officer who investigated the case. The girl's teacher and principal embarrassed the child in class, played down the incident to child protective services and warned students not to tell anyone what had happened, according to a police report obtained by The Herald. Some also gave conflicting statements to police, the report states.

A six-month police investigation -- and review by the Monterey County District Attorney's Office -- did not result in charges against the priest. Even so, the girl's parents sued the diocese the following December, and the suit was settled out of court. It isn't known whether the girl's family received any money from the diocese.

Law enforcement and child-abuse experts have expressed concern over how the school handled the allegations in the first 24 hours after they came to light.

The parents of the girl have declined to talk about the case, as have officials from Sacred Heart School and the diocese, whose officials said, "... the diocese cooperated fully with appropriate civil authorities. ..."

The Herald isn't revealing the name of the girl or her family, because it doesn't print the names of alleged sex-abuse victims.

The incident occurred March 11, 1999, when an 11-year-old Sacred Heart School girl, crying hysterically, told her mother that Valdez had touched her once during confession months before. The scene came at the end of a day when she and her class were scheduled to attend confession with Valdez and another priest.

The girl said she didn't like to see the priest because Valdez had put his hand on her skirt over her groin area for about a minute during confession the previous December. At a confession, which usually lasts several minutes, a priest and his parishioner often sit facing each other in a small room. They may be within arm's reach, and the priest often blesses parishioners by touching their foreheads.

According to the report, several other students in the girl's morning class told their teacher they didn't like to go to confession with Valdez. The teacher, Sister Lynne, said she told about a dozen students to write their reasons anonymously.

The girl told police she wrote on her paper: "Father Paul touches me where I don't want to be touched and touched my private parts and I don't like it."

Sister Lynne recognized the girl's handwriting on the paper and questioned her about the statement.

At lunch, Sister Lynne notified the principal, Sister Paulette Tiefenbrunn.

Later in class, Sister Lynne told police, she brought the girl to the front of the class and had her indicate which other children knew what she'd written. More than a dozen indicated that they knew, and she and the principal pulled those children aside for a lecture.

According to the report, the nuns made the girl stand in front of the class while they lectured the others.

Sister Lynne later admitted to police she was "very angry" and began to "yell" at the children not to spread rumors, and that the girl's allegation could ruin the priest's reputation.

Tiefenbrunn then sat in a chair, she told police, and pretending to be the girl in the confessional, told the girl to show the class where Valdez had touched her.

The girl told police she was too embarrassed to do so.

"Did he just set his hands on your lap like this?" the principal asked, placing the girl's hands on the nun's own lap.

The girl indicated yes.

The principal and Sister Lynne then instructed the class "not to talk about this to anyone."

"It was quite obvious from this interview that ... Sister Lynne (did) not meet the requirements of immediately reporting this incident to child protective services," wrote Salinas police detective Tim McLaughlin in his report.

He also noted that the nuns told the children to keep quiet about the incident.

During the investigation, McLaughlin expressed concerns that the nuns either gave conflicting statements or were unable to recall events of the previous day.

"It was quite apparent that Sister Paulette, as well as Sister Lynne, were less than honest about their recollection of the events that took place," he wrote in his police report.

McLaughlin wrote in his report that he heard conflicting testimony on several areas, including:

* The lecture. The principal said to police that she told the class she was a mandated reporter of abuse, and that she would report such allegations. The girl said Tiefenbrunn never said that to the class, but instead warned that Valdez could "go to jail" if word got out.

Tiefenbrunn told police the next day she couldn't recall whether she'd told the class Valdez could go to jail, McLaughlin wrote.

* Reporting. Police asked Tiefenbrunn why she didn't report the alleged incident immediately. Child-abuse experts advise that someone who suspects abuse should report it as soon as possible while the allegation is still fresh. State law requires a phone call to law enforcement or a child protective agency within 24 hours, followed up with a written report within 36 hours.

In the police report, neither Tiefenbrunn nor Sister Lynne said why they failed to call police. Tiefenbrunn said she had tried to call a couple of agencies in the late afternoon, but they were already closed. She couldn't, however, recall the numbers.

She did not explain why she made those calls even though in her office she had the number of the 24-hour hot line number of Children's Protective Services (CPS), the traditional agency to report to.

Early that next morning, the principal told McLaughlin, she did call the agency and report the incident. But she said the agency official told her they handled only in-house abuse cases, and that she should call the police. After hanging up, she said, she was contacted by the police themselves.

That account didn't satisfy the officer.

"The information that Sister Paulette actually reported to the CPS did not match what she told me she reported," McLaughlin wrote.

In a report by Detective Joseph Gunter, a CPS official said she received a call from the Sacred Heart principal informing her of the incident. The official told Gunter that Tiefenbrunn said she had investigated and determined "there had been no crime at that time, and that she felt that the incident was being blown out of proportion," the report states.

The principal told the agency "the child had just been embarrassed and upset by the fact that the priest had had confession with her" and that Tiefenbrunn felt nothing inappropriate had happened, Gunter wrote.

The police report has no account from Valdez. Despite at least two attempts to make an appointment with the priest, according to the report, he never met with officers. He is now pastor of St. Michael's Church in Boulder Creek.

The nuns "could have completely ruined the case," said Robin Leppo, program coordinator of the Fresno Council on Child Abuse Prevention, a state-mandated, nonprofit child abuse prevention agency for Fresno County. She was commenting on information provided by The Herald.

The nuns should not have tried to investigate the matter or mentioned the girl's concern to other students.

"When you humiliate a child like that, she's going to recant ... because she's embarrassed." Leppo said. "You don't want to implant things into a child's mind, either. Young kids want to please their teachers. You don't want them to tell things that aren't true just because they're telling the teacher what she wants to hear."

Questioning potentially abused children inappropriately could also traumatize them even more, said Yemanja Krasnow, unit director at the Women's Crisis Center in Salinas.

The classroom demonstration could have created "an environment of fear and embarrassment," she said. "That teacher had no business traumatizing that child the way she did."

Educators should just get enough basic facts to report the allegation to law enforcement or child protection services, she said.


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