Reno Priest Named in Lawsuit Claiming Past Sexual Abuse

By Martha Bellisle
Reno Gazette-Journal
November 12, 2003

A Catholic priest in Reno has been named in a lawsuit claiming inappropriate sexual behavior with a teenager while working at a school in San Diego, an allegation he has denied.

The Rev. Robert Buchanan, the recently retired presiding priest at Our Lady of Snows Church, is accused of touching a 14-year-old student in 1972 while he was a counselor at the Roman Catholic high school in San Diego.

The lawsuit filed in the California Superior Court in San Diego by an unnamed 45-year-old woman claims that Buchanan "would touch her body and rub his body up against hers" when she visited his office for academic counseling.

The woman's lawyer, Irwin Zalkin, said the priest also fondled the girl over her clothing.

The suit seeks unspecified damages from the Diocese of San Diego, the boarding school where the woman lived and the high school.

Buchanan, who is with the diocese of San Bernardino but has been a resident priest in Reno, denied any inappropriate behavior.

"That would be a hug," Buchanan said of the description of the abuse alleged in the lawsuit. "I have declared my innocence. But there's nothing to declare because there's nothing dealing with sexual misconduct in the suit."

Zalkin also said Buchanan was sent to a retreat called the New Life Institute for Human Development in Virginia for counseling before being assigned to work in Reno.

It was unclear whether the counseling was related to the allegations contained in the lawsuit.

Buchanan declined to talk about the treatment center and referred questions to his lawyer. Robert Jassoy, his lawyer in San Diego, refused to comment on the lawsuit or the treatment the priest received.

Bishop Phillip Straling, leader of the Diocese of Reno and former bishop of the Diocese of San Diego where he knew Buchanan, said he was unaware of any inappropriate behavior by the priest with a student.

"This thing in San Diego was a total surprise to me," Straling said in an interview. "We've gone through our records and found he has had no problems with minors or children, anyone under age."

"There have been no complaints here about any misconduct," he added.

Straling confirmed, however, that Buchanan was sent to the treatment center in Virginia "to get some help for some personal problems." But, Straling said, "it had nothing to do with children or minors."

"He had some problems in the Diocese of San Diego," Straling said. He declined to identify the nature of the problems and said nothing indicates the problems have continued.

"There have been no complaints here about any misconduct," the bishop said.

Straling said that after Buchanan completed his treatment, officials recommended that he not return to San Diego. They contacted Straling, he said, and asked whether he would be willing to let Buchanan work in Reno.

Straling agreed, he said, adding: "He has done a good job here."

Brother Matthew Cunningham, spokesman for the Reno diocese, said in an e-mailed message to parishes on Nov. 6 that Buchanan "has voluntarily removed himself from active ministry until this matter is resolved." He said since Buchanan belongs to the Southern California diocese, its review board is investigating the case.

The claims against Buchanan are the second to be lodged against a Reno priest in recent years.

Monsignor Robert Bowling, the former pastor of St. Therese the Little Flower Church who died earlier this year, was named in 11 lawsuits by women who claimed he molested or behaved sexually inappropriately with them while they were children in Louisville, Ky., or as adults.

The Archdiocese of Louisville, Ky., agreed in June to pay $25.7 million to 243 people who accused priests of sexual abuse, including the women who made claims against Bowling. The archbishop also apologized for the abuse.

Bowling, however, had denied the allegations.

In the San Diego lawsuit, filed Oct. 14, the woman claims she was sent to a Catholic boarding school called the Nazareth House after her father died and her mother could no longer care for their children.

In addition to the claims against Buchanan, the lawsuit states that the woman was raped by a now deceased priest named Monsignor I.B. Eagen, and was abused and tortured by a woman identified as Sister Bridgette while at the house from 1969 to 1970.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.