Priest Abuse Cases Examine Hierarchy

By Robin Evans
San Jose Mercury News [California]
August 31, 2004

Some time before the Rev. Leonel Noia was accused of molesting two brothers on a camping trip in 1976, the San Francisco archbishop had been alerted that Noia had engaged in inappropriate behavior of a sexual nature in a San Jose rectory, according to new information gleaned in a lawsuit against the Roman Catholic dioceses of San Francisco and San Jose.

The Aug. 20 deposition of the Rev. William Flanagan, pastor of St. Patrick's parish when the newly ordained Noia served there in the early '70s, contains the first indication that church hierarchy had been warned about the priest in advance of the boys' accusations.

What church officials knew and when are key questions as people alleging sexual abuse by priests seek damages in more than 160 lawsuits against Roman Catholic dioceses in Northern California for failing to take preventive action. The cases are undergoing pretrial hearings in Alameda County Superior Court.

The negligence suits are among 900 filed in California last year under a temporary lifting of the statute of limitations for civil cases involving abuse that occurred years ago.

The Noia case is one of 13 lawsuits alleging abuse by five Santa ClaraCounty priests. Noia also worked for a time at St. Joseph parish in Mountain View.

Suggestive photo

Flanagan, then pastor at St. Patrick's, now a Vietnamese parish, said he discovered Noia had put a photograph of a naked woman on the outside of a fellow priest's bedroom door in the rectory. Flanagan said he had a "vehement conversation" with Noia and followed up by sending the photo and a memo about the incident to then-Archbishop Joseph McGucken, according to his deposition.

But that report was not in Noia's personnel file, turned over to plaintiffs' attorneys as part of legal proceedings.

"I am positive that the church has either not given us all their documents or destroyed the documents," said attorney Robert L. Mezzetti II, who is representing Noia's alleged victims and others in the so-called Clergy III cases. "The church claims that any time any allegation is made against a priest with regard to sexual misconduct, a notation of that allegation is made and kept in the priest's file."

In addition to Flanagan's, Mezzetti said he has statements from a couple who said they exchanged letters with McGucken's successor about the alleged abuse of their son by the now-deceased Rev. Joseph Pritchard at St. Martin of Tours parish in San Jose. The communications are not in Pritchard's file.

The personnel files of Noia, Pritchard, Arthur Harrison and two other priests accused in the lawsuits of abusing minors in Santa Clara County were turned over to the San Jose diocese when it was created in 1981. Both the San Jose and San Francisco dioceses are named in the suits.

John Ottoboni, attorney for the San Jose diocese, said nothing has been removed from the files since they were transferred from the San Francisco archdiocese. Its attorney, Paul Gaspari, said, "Everything should go into the file. If it's not there, it means it never existed or never went into the file."

That is an advantage certainly for church lawyers trying to have the cases thrown out for lack of evidence, but a Catch-22 for plaintiffs' attorneys forced to rely on victim reports in decades-old cases in which many possible witnesses may be dead.

And it has been one of the roadblocks for Alameda County Superior Court Ronald Sabraw, who in a series of pretrial hearings has tried to come up with a legal standard for evidence needed to show the church had prior knowledge that would have put it on notice of a possible risk for sexual misconduct.

He is expected to rule Friday in a Concord case in which the key evidence is the alleged victim's statement that a housekeeper led him up to the bedroom of a priest. The housekeeper, who is deceased, never reported it to anyone. But whether she would have been expected to as an employee is one of the legal issues under consideration.

In the absence of physical proof in the Noia case, Mezzetti is hoping the testimony of Flanagan, one of the church's own, will be enough to convince the judge there is sufficient evidence of "prior notice," paving the way for trial or a possible settlement. A hearing on the evidence in the Noia case is set for Sept. 28.

Flanagan never heard back from the archbishop and had no idea whether he ever took any action. He did not tell the archbishop about pornography he found in Noia's room, but said he felt he ought to know about the picture.

"That was kind of public behavior," Flanagan said in the deposition. "Anyone walking by his room," which was near the back door, "could see it."

Flanagan also said he was not notified in advance or told why when Noia was transferred to St. Joseph parish in Mountain View.

No contest plea

Noia had left Mountain View, apparently of his own accord, when he took the boys camping at Mount Madonna. The boys went to the police. Noia pleaded no contest to lewd behavior with one of them, served time and underwent psychiatric counseling.

Noia has alternately denied any wrongdoing and said he did not know what happened because he was drunk at the time. He eventually was allowed to returnto parish work in 1978.

The priest eventually landed at the Five Wounds Portuguese National Church in San Jose. Although he was later accused of sexual misconduct with two boys while he was at St. Anthony's parish in 1985, he went on to spend 16 years at Five Wounds as a popular pastor.

Records show that one of the families contacted then-Bishop Pierre DuMaine, but it appears no action was taken. Noia denied the charges, and the families at the time did not seek compensation or file a lawsuit.

Noia was removed from ministry at Five Wounds in 2002 under the church's new zero-tolerance policy.


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