A Crusader for Justice
Los Gatos Shopkeeper Brought Abuse of Two Retarded Friends to Light

By Michelle Guido and Rodney Foo
San Jose Mercury News
April 1, 2002

[See also Cloak of Silence Covered Abuse at Jesuit Retreat, by Glenn F. Bunting, Los Angeles Times (March 24, 2002).]

Sitting cross-legged on the floor of her Los Gatos clothing shop with an Australian shepherd at her side, Holly Ilse rifles through heaps of notes dating back to fall 1997.

To anyone else, the papers resemble inconsequential scraps. But for Ilse, they are a diary of alleged crimes and a personal history of her attempts to get justice for two mentally retarded men -- longtime Los Gatos residents she befriended almost by accident -- who say they were sexually abused by clergymen at Sacred Heart Jesuit Center.

Long a private obsession, her efforts have now burst into public view -- and Ilse has become an unlikely hero.

"Holly was the one," said Santa Clara County sheriff's detective Dianne Camarda, a lead investigator in the case. "Without her persistence it wouldn't have gone anywhere."

Since news of the scandal broke last weekend, dozens of people have stopped by her shop to give her a hug, or lend their support. Some law enforcement officers even credit her with saving the men, whom psychologists in the case called "perfect victims."

The case, the latest in a series of ugly revelations involving Roman Catholic clergy and sex abuse, has brought the national scandal home to Silicon Valley.

Already, one Jesuit in Los Gatos, Brother Charles Leonard Connor, has pleaded no contest to a criminal charge that he abused one victim. A priest implicated in the case, the Rev. Edward Thomas Burke, has been moved from the center.

Connor, Burke, two other Jesuit clergy members and the center itself are named in a civil lawsuit brought in June by the two victims seeking $10 million in damages. Court papers show that three other men at the center may be implicated, and the suit alleges that the abuse dates back 30 years.

It's been a life-changing experience for Ilse, a willowy dynamo with a pixie haircut who tends to wave her arms when she speaks. The 36-year-old Campbell native, who still lives in her hometown with her two dogs and three cats, has remained utterly committed to her cause since she first heard the allegations more than four years ago.

"Holly is the most moral human being I have ever met. She doesn't have anything but the most just sense of right and wrong," said Denise Harr, who has known Ilse since she was a child. "I wasn't surprised that Holly would give up her entire being and soul to do what's right."

Though she was not related to either of the men, Ilse took responsibility for their plight. And she made one of them a promise:

"I gave him my word that if he told the truth, he would be safe," Ilse said. "I'm just outraged that they had to live this way for so long."

What's driving her now is the need to get the men moved out of the center and to secure for them the kind of social services they need to carry on the rest of their lives.

A tattered paper bag from Ilse's clothing store, Nuance, is scribbled with her original notes from September 1997. Among them is this phrase: "Brother Charlie Connor massaged him and touched him in places a doctor's only supposed to touch you."

As soon as the man referred to in court documents as James Doe told her that, Ilse sprang into action -- though she had no idea what she was doing or how to go about it.

She simply picked up the phone and started dialing.

She called Child Protective Services and they told her to call Adult Protective Services, who told her to call Los Gatos police. She did, and was told the novitiate property was in the Santa Clara County sheriff's territory. She called the sheriff and persisted until detectives finally developed a clear sense of what had gone on.

"I will not back down until my friends have justice. Period," Ilse said. "If you knew all this, wouldn't you fight, too?"

On every step of the 4 1/2-year journey, she kept meticulous notes. With every frustrating dead end -- and there were many -- Ilse went on to Plan B. There were times when people told her they didn't want to get involved because she was accusing members of the church. Others said the case would be weak because retarded men don't make the best witnesses.

Ilse refused to listen. To her, this was all about "John" and "James." She needed to get them off "the hill," which is what she and the victims call the Jesuit center.

"The boys," as Ilse calls them, still live in their rooms above the boiler and tool shop behind the Jesuit center's main building. But she and James Doe's sister, Debra Sullivan, are hoping to find them a new place.

If they win the lawsuit, Ilse hopes the money will be used to ensure that James and John can move to an assisted-living environment in Los Gatos, the town where they've lived, and the only home they've known, for decades.

Sullivan knew nothing about the abuse her brother had endured until Ilse prompted police to conduct a serious investigation in April 2000. She praised Ilse's follow-up work with authorities, social service agencies and attorneys.

Ilse's persistence was made more effective by her meticulous record-keeping. "It made my job easier because she had all the background," Camarda said.

Camarda found that Ilse had jotted down notes on all of her conversations with John and James, and her conversations with law enforcement authorities, social agencies and Sacred Heart.

Ilse's father, Roy, a retired San Jose police lieutenant, cautioned her in the beginning to keep good records of all her conversations. But even he was surprised by his daughter's relentless campaign.

"I'm familiar with bureaucracy and how many barriers are up for people," Roy Ilse said. "I'm surprised at how persistent she's been because I know that in the police department, you get reports and it's really easy to kiss them off."

It took some time before the two men told Ilse their secret. She had befriended one of them right after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 as she was sweeping debris off the sidewalk in front of her store on Main Street.

John Doe -- the one Ilse met first -- gave her the first clue. He began telling her that "Brother Connor is bugging me." She wasn't sure what he meant, and he wouldn't go into detail. Then, he began telling her over and over, "I'm not gay."

In September 1997, when James Doe was visiting her store, she asked him: "Hey, what's the deal with . . . Brother Connor" and John?

But instead of revealing that Brother Connor was molesting John Doe, James Doe confided his own experience with Connor. That's when she called police, but the investigation came to naught when the men declined to talk to sheriff's deputies who came to the Jesuit center to investigate.

Then in April 2000, John Doe finally told Ilse that Connor had touched his private parts. He sobbed, saying he wanted "Brother Connor" to leave him alone.

Again, she called authorities, insisting the men were telling the truth. And this time, it would end in Connor pleading no contest to lewd and lascivious conduct with a dependent adult.

Both he and Burke have been moved out of the Jesuit center. Connor was moved to Bellarmine College Preparatory, a Jesuit high school in San Jose, where he stayed for five months before being moved to another Bay Area Jesuit community.

Burke was moved to the Jesuit residence at Santa Clara University, but last week was moved again to an undisclosed location.

It was Ilse who found out that the Jesuits had been transferred and where they had been moved. She also discovered that there were other registered sex offenders living at the Los Gatos retreat.

Ilse's mother, Joani, cries when she speaks about her daughter's tireless quest to do what's right for John and James.

"It's been very, very hard. I don't think anybody realized that it wasn't just a quick fix -- it was a lot of doors being slammed in her face," Joani Ilse said.

"But these boys, they have gotten all the bad from life. And I'm so proud that she's bringing some good back into their lives."

Contact Michelle Guido at or (408) 295-3984.


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