Priest, 72, Faces Move
Inland: Though an Inquiry against Him Was Dropped, He Will Also Revisit a Treatment Center
By Scott Farwell
September 30, 2002
Riverside — Catholic Church officials are forcing a priest to move out of a Riverside retirement home, even though a child molestation investigation against him was dropped.
The Rev. Joe Fertal, 72, has a history of inappropriate relationships with children, according to his order, the Society of the Divine Word. Fertal will be relocated in October to a St. Louis church treatment center for priests accused of sexual misconduct, said the Rev. Joseph Miller, head of the order's Western Province.
Fertal has never been arrested or charged with a crime. A civil lawsuit alleging that he sexually abused a Corona boy was settled out of court. He has denied the accusations. "Joe fits a pattern," Miller said. "He has a history of making bad decisions, of having imprudent relationships with children."
Since the late 1980s, Fertal has been sent at least three times to the St. Louis treatment center, St. Michael's Institute, according to court records.
And, despite warnings from his counselors that he should not minister to children, he was assigned to St. Edward Catholic Church in Corona, where he was accused in 1994 of repeatedly raping a 16-year-old catechism student, according to court records.
A criminal investigation was dropped because of lack of evidence, said Corona police Sgt. Neil Henderson. The civil suit against the San Bernardino Diocese and Fertal's religious order involving the same accusation was settled out of court in 1996. The terms are secret.
Came to Riverside Fertal moved to Divine Word Seminary in Riverside after being removed from the Corona church.
In April, the diocese, which encompasses Riverside and San Bernardino counties, turned over the names of 20 current and former priests accused of sexual abuse and said it would no longer enter into secret settlements like the one involving Fertal.
Corona police chose not to reopen Fertal's case "There was just no proof," Henderson said. "We looked at it years ago and closed it out because it was unfounded."
A spokesman for the seminary said Fertal declined to comment.
Fertal denied the allegation from his dropped Corona case in an April interview.
Fertal, who has a doctoral degree in psychology, spent 25 years as a teacher and missionary in the Philippines. The church moved him back to the United States in 1989 amid rumors that he had inappropriate relationships with teenage boys, Miller said.
When he returned from the Philippines in 1989, Fertal was treated for "sexual anxieties" at St. Michael's Institute, according to court records.
After counseling, Fertal agreed to sever his relationship with teenage boys in the Philippines, to attend regular counseling for sex addicts, and not to have young people in his home or minister to youths at church, according to court records.
Letters sent Miller sent a series of letters to Msgr. Donald Webber in 1993 after Fertal applied for a job in the San Bernardino Diocese.
Miller emphasized that Fertal had never been accused of sexual misconduct in the Philippines, but that he would "not suggest that he (Fertal) take care of youth ministry in the parish," according to the letter. Miller also wrote that Fertal should not spend inordinate amounts of time with young people. "It would be inappropriate to have young people in his private quarters."
Miller also wrote a letter of reference for Fertal to Webber that said: "I am unaware of anything in his (Fertal's) background which would render him unsuitable to work with minor children."
Miller said he doesn't remember writing the recommendation for Fertal.
Fertal was eventually granted permission to celebrate Mass in the diocese, assigned to St. Edward Church in Corona, and asked to teach catechism classes.
"Looking back as a brother, I have to bear some responsibility for what happened," said Miller. "I should have been more forceful when I look back on the tragedy that unfolded."
San Bernardino Diocese Bishop Gerald Barnes asked Miller to move Fertal in May after learning Fertal was involved with overnight youth retreats at a church complex across a courtyard from his Riverside home.
"We learned he was booking retreats at Divine Word, and that's when Bishop Barnes . . . (asked) that Father Fertal be moved to a monitored environment outside the Diocese of San Bernardino," according to Barnes' spokesman, the Rev. Howard Lincoln.
Evaluation in St. Louis Miller said he sent Fertal back to St. Michael's earlier this month for a weeklong evaluation.
A panel of experts there said Fertal needs extensive therapy for five or six months before being released into a seminary where his activities will be monitored, Miller said.
Fertal will eventually be sent to live in Jemez Springs, N.M., a former Paraclete treatment center for priests accused of pedophilia and other sexual dysfunctions, Miller said. It is now used as a retirement home for priests who need mentoring and monitoring, Miller said.
Officials at St. Michael's and in Jemez Springs declined to comment on Fertal's case.
"Joe is not going to go out and attack a kid... He's not violent," said Miller, who reviewed Fertal's personnel file and discussed his treatment with church counselors. "He always associated with teenagers, not young kids. I'm convinced he's not a pedophile."
There have been no reports of inappropriate behavior by Fertal in his eight years at Divine Word in Riverside, said Miller, who said the priest was forbidden to visit retreats or have any contact with young people.
Even so, Miller said relocating Fertal is the right thing to do.
"I feel comfortable, strong, right in the decision," Miller said. "Even if Joe didn't molest that boy (in Corona), there's plenty in his life that needs attention."
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