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'Rid me of This Troublesome Priest' 

How the Santa Rosa Diocese shuffled a quarter of its accused clergy to Humboldt's parishes and their children

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Earlier this month, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa took an unprecedented step — for the church, anyway — releasing a list naming 39 of its priests who have been accused of sexually abusing minors. While the North Coast began publicly grappling with predatory clergy earlier than most communities — the arrest of Rev. Gary Timmons, a former St. Bernard priest who founded Camp St. Michael in Leggett, on 17 counts of child molestation came more than six years before the nation became aware of the growing crisis in the church. But the diocese's list — which critics charge is an incomplete effort at damage control — reveals that the extent of such abuses in Humboldt County was far beyond what anyone outside the church likely knew.

Consider this: Of the 39 priests on the diocese's list, at least 10 worked in Humboldt County, together comprising an almost consistent 45-year stretch when a priest who had been or would face allegations of abuse was working in a local church. Five of them worked at St. Bernard, four at St. Mary's in Arcata, three at Humboldt State University's Newman Center. And, coupled with the Santa Rosa bishops' history of extensive efforts to protect and even enable the accused, that's led some advocates to draw a very dark conclusion.

"Humboldt County and Eureka, unfortunately, was one of the 'dumping grounds' for abusive clergy, and the church is not going to reveal the true depths of depravity that has existed there," says Joey Piscitelli, who was abused by a priest in the Bay Area and is now a member of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). "What I can say without reservation is that the Catholic Church in Northern California was inundated with child rapists, pedophiles and depraved molesters for decades, and depraved bishops who harbored them, shuffled them, shielded them and enabled them without any regard for children's safety."

The latest revelations from the diocese leave little doubt — if any remained — that the problems at the core of the Catholic Church's crisis were systemic and persisted for decades. Still up for debate is whether those problems remain and how an institution can go about rebuilding a trust shattered repeatedly over the course of decades, leaving families broken, lives ruined and predators on the loose.


On Jan. 31, reporters crowded into a conference room of the city of Orange's DoubleTree Inn, where lawyers with the firm Jeff Anderson and Associates were preparing to release a 70-page report detailing sexual abuses by clergy in the Diocese of San Bernardino. Earlier in the month, Jeff Anderson filed what could be a landmark case on behalf of Thomas Emens, who alleges he was abused in Los Angeles in the late 1970s. The case names each of the 12 diocese in California as defendants, as well as the archdiocese in Chicago, alleging a conspiracy to conceal the crimes of their predatory priests.

"There is a playbook being employed," Anderson said. "And that playbook is to move, to transfer, to hide, to conceal and keep secret not only the identities of all the offenders but their histories."

Anderson's report indicates church officials repeatedly used euphemisms in public statements and church documents, describing "inappropriate contact" or "boundary issues" instead of "molestation" and "rape." They sent accused priests to church-run "treatment centers," like one in New Mexico, telling parishioners they were on "sick leave" or suffering "exhaustion," before labeling them reformed and returning them to parishes. When numerous complaints arose, officials would simply transfer priests to new locations where nobody knew of their predations. And in what victims advocate Patrick Wall has coined the "geographic solution," Anderson alleges there is a documented pattern of the church sending accused priests to placements in foreign countries or to areas with vulnerable populations least likely to complain about the conduct: immigrant communities, inner cities and poor, rural communities like Humboldt County.

This is what Piscitelli means when he says Humboldt County became a dumping ground. And there is evidence in the recently released list from the diocese to support the notion.

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Perhaps the most damning of these examples is the case of Patrick Joseph McCabe, who reportedly faced numerous accusations of molestation in Dublin, Ireland, in 1982, according to a report by Irish Circuit Court Judge Yvonne Murphy — known simply as the "Murphy Report." According to the report, Dublin Archbishop Dermot Ryan, feeling he couldn't return McCabe to the Dublin churches where his abuses were known, instead reached out to Santa Rosa Bishop Mark Hurley and asked Hurley to "rid me of this troublesome priest."

Hurley accepted McCabe, knowing he would be entering the diocese from a church-run center in New Mexico, where he was deemed a pedophile, enrolled in a treatment program and placed on medications designed to rein in his sexual desires. McCabe came to St. Bernard Church in 1983 and served there two years until 1985, when Hurley received a "credible" molestation allegation against McCabe, one that came on the heels of parishioners expressing concerns about the priest's habit of having boys sit on his lap when hearing their first confessions. After receiving this "credible" allegation against McCabe, Hurley didn't say a word to the St. Bernard congregation. Instead, he transferred McCabe to St. Elizabeth's in Guerneville, where he served for a year before being removed and returned to Ireland for unknown reasons.

There are other examples, too.

The average placement for a priest is about six years but some of those on the diocese abuse list who spent time on the North Coast seemed to bounce from church to church much more frequently. Take the case of Anthony Bolger, who served at St. Mary's in Arcata for his first assignment in 1971. He spent the next seven years bouncing between four churches before he was placed on "leave" for unknown reasons in 1978. When he returned to duty — this time in the Diocese of Honolulu — he quickly faced accusations of molesting two young boys. After his whereabouts were unknown for a stretch, he resurfaced at St. Anthony Church in Kailua, Hawaii, where he faced additional allegations of abuse. He ultimately resigned for "medical reasons" with full retirement benefits from the church.

Then there's Thomas Parker, who had served at three churches in four years before arriving at St. Patrick Church in Scotia. He lasted a few years there before he was abruptly put on "sabbatical" in 1995. It's unclear if he had any further assignments but, in 2007, he admitted to molesting a boy repeatedly from 1988 to 1989 at a parish in Napa. A civil lawsuit settled the following year and Parker was defrocked.

Donald Kimball was assigned to Sacred Heart Church from 1969 through 1973, then transferred to St. Bernard, where he worked until 1976 before being transferred to a youth ministry in Santa Rosa, which spawned a nationally acclaimed radio show and afforded Kimball some celebrity within the church. In 1987, Bishop John Steinbock was reportedly told Kimball had fondled two girls four years earlier but "made little effort to follow up on the information," according to reports in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. The bishop's notes from Nov. 22, 1987, introduced during a 1999 deposition, read: "Two teenage girls, no intercourse, intimate touching and kissing." The bishop testified during the deposition that he did not ask and Kimball did not reveal the girls' names or ages, according to a report in the Press Democrat. Another allegation came in 1988 but there's no evidence it was acted upon.

Finally, in 1990, Kimball reportedly admitted to Steinbock that he'd had sexual contact with six underage girls, including three in Eureka. During a deposition, Steinbock said he then offered to assign Kimball to a hospital or a jail. When the priest refused, Steinbock only suspended him.

Pressed at the deposition about why he hadn't fired Kimball, the bishop said simply: "You try to save a person's priesthood if possible."

About a decade later, a 43-year-old man identified as James Doe alleged in a lawsuit filed in Sonoma County that Kimball began molesting him in 1969, when he was 9, and the abuse continued for five years. (In 2000, the diocese reached a combined $1.6 million settlement in a host of suits brought against Kimball.) In 2003, Kimball was convicted of molesting a 13-year-old girl in Healdsburg in 1981.

It's worth noting that, over and over, when priests have been publicly accused of molesting or raping children in the Santa Rosa Diocese, bishops and their spokespeople have responded that there's no record of prior allegations against the priest in church files.

That was the case with Patrick Gleason, a native of Tipperary, Ireland, who stepped in as pastor at Our Lady of the Redwoods in Garberville in 1950, when he was just 22. He served there for 17 years until he was transferred to Calistoga, "where he could have more help in carrying out his work," according to the Susie Van Kirk Papers at Humboldt State University, which also note that Gleason had been referred to as the "unofficial chaplain of South Fork High."

Shortly after leaving Garberville, Gleason was accused of molesting a 12-year-old altar boy. The allegation didn't become public until a lawsuit was filed in 2002, at which point a spokesperson said the diocese had no record of prior allegations against Gleason in church files.

What the spokesperson didn't mention is that Hurley destroyed all the diocese's confidential personnel records when he resigned from his role as bishop in 1987, according to Hurley's testimony in 1995.

While the Santa Rosa Diocese has received widespread praise for releasing the list of 39 names, as well as devoting nearly the entire January issue of its newspaper, North Coast Catholic, to apologizing for the abuses of its priests and detailing its reform efforts, it is still keeping some information under wraps. Notably, the diocese didn't respond to numerous North Coast Journal requests to release assignment records of each of the 39 accused, records that would detail when and where the priests worked in the diocese.

Absent such records, and left to comb through news reports, wedding announcements, funeral notices and other documents in the public domain, the Journal was able to confirm that at least 10 of the 39 spent time working in Humboldt County churches and at least five were accused of sexually abusing children during their time here.

But the January issue of North Coast Catholic, in and of itself, is something to behold.

Almost the entirety of its 24 pages are dedicated to the abuse crisis. There's the list of 39 names, a lengthy apology from Bishop Robert Vasa, a piece reflecting on the "current crisis facing the church," a lengthy list of frequently asked questions, a piece on the diocese's policy for "the protection of children and young people" and pledges from "safe environment coordinators" from every church in the diocese to follow the policy. There is even a list of local police agencies phone numbers church employees and parishioners can use to report abuse. For an institution known to deny and deflect — an institution whose bishop once testified under oath that he "never reported anything to police" — the issue is quite a statement.

"In the name of the Church, I want first of all to express my sincere sorrow that so many have been subjected to the evil actions of deacons, priests and other representatives of the Church of the Diocese of Santa Rosa," Vasa wrote. "Thus, I apologize again, especially to any who have been subjected to injury at the hands of the clergy named below. ... My primary goal in releasing the names of accused priests and deacons who served in Santa Rosa in this public fashion is to give to all the victims of clerical sexual abuse the assurance that they have been heard and that the church is very much concerned for their well-being and healing. It is my deepest prayer and hope that this release of names in a consolidated fashion says to any of you who are victims, we heard you, we believe you, we affirm you in your trauma and we want to help with a healing process."

Vasa also notes there is reason to believe conditions within the church have changed.

"The time of darkness and shadows must end," he wrote. "Bringing difficult things to light is painful. It is painful for victims of childhood sexual abuse, for the people of God, for our priests and for me. I know of no other way to bring light to this distressing moment in the church. I want to call attention to one portion of the list: the years when the abuses occurred. ... Sadly, we have had sexual abuse events as late as 2006 and 2008 and I find that most troubling. However, the vast majority of the abuses occurred decades ago. This is not complete proof that we are making progress in eliminating this great tragedy, but I pray we can find in this reality a sign of hope."

It's hard to say exactly how Vasa's message is being received in the local pews or whether, in the face of decades of systemic obfuscation, the message or the list found a credulous audience. Employees at two local churches indicated that while the diocese newspapers are widely available — in addition to being mailed to members of the church — there has been little if any discussion of this month's issue. (Numerous Journal messages left for pastors at all local Catholic churches, as well as HSU's Newman Center, also went unreturned.)

For local attorney Bill Bertain, it was a welcome step in a horrendously dark period for the church, which has hemorrhaged members and donations for decades now as a result of the slowly unfolding scandal. Perhaps the story hits closer to home for Bertain than others, as he watched as some of the North Coast's wounds were laid bare some 25 years ago.

According to a 2002 story in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Bertain penned two letters in October of 1993 — one to then Santa Rosa Bishop Patrick Ziemann and one to Gary Timmons, then a priest at St. Bernard — warning that he'd heard stories of Timmons giving backrubs to a 13-year-old boy — stories that could be the basis for a lawsuit and embarrassment to the church, according to the Press Democrat.

Three months later, Timmons was sent to New Mexico for "Church sponsored rehabilitation." He was later arrested in Chicago, ultimately accused of molesting 18 children during overnight outings at Camp St. Michael and in his rectory bedrooms in three counties, including Humboldt. The allegations spanned the better part of three decades and Timmons would spend four years in prison and have to register as a sex offender as the diocese paid out millions in settlements. After removing Timmons from the priesthood, Bishop Ziemann personally loaned him $40,000 for his legal defense.

About four years before Timmons' case exploded into public view, a man named Patrick McBride came forward in 1988 to then Bishop Steinbock, alleging that when he was 15, a priest named John Rogers raped him at St. Bernard Church. According to McBride, he'd been at Camp St. Michael when Timmons told him to travel with Rogers to Eureka for a "special project." McBride said he and the priest got drunk at St. Bernard and he awoke to Rogers sodomizing him.

According to the 1998 testimony of Monsignor Thomas Keys, then vicar-general of the Santa Rosa Diocese, Steinbock suspended Rogers at the time, sending him to be evaluated. There are conflicting reports about exactly what that evaluation consisted of and found: One Press Democrat story notes a psychiatrist found Rogers was a "latent homosexual but not a pedophile," while another quotes McBride saying that Keys later told him a three-week evaluation at St. Mary's Hospital determined Rogers "was sick." According to McBride, Keys said he and Steinbock confronted Rogers with the evaluation results and Rogers "didn't deny or admit anything but started crying uncontrollably."

Rogers was reinstated a short time later.

After Timmons' arrest on Oct. 31, 1995, McBride learned that Rogers was still working around students at Humboldt State University and at St. Mary's in Arcata, and again complained to the bishop, this time Ziemann, who sent Rogers to "study" at a university in Belgium as the allegations were investigated. On Nov. 13, Rogers was found dead in a forest in Belgium, having cut his own wrists. He left a note saying he was innocent but couldn't bear the embarrassment of the charges. Six years later, McBride's parents found him dead in their home. A coroner would later find high levels of oxycodone in his blood and rule he died of "chronic drug abuse."

Reached by the Journal, Bertain declined to comment on the record about the specifics of his suspicions regarding Timmons or much else. Instead, he sent a long statement contemplating how one accounts for "such horrendous, hurtful actions that cause such lifelong harm — to the victim, to the victim's family and to the wider community of the church and society," and lamenting how the "cover-ups" by bishops and others compound the "tragedy and betrayal of trust." Likening the Catholic Church's legacy of sexual abuse to the Holocaust, American slavery, human trafficking and abortion, he blamed "Satan and his devils."

"Yes, the devil and his minions infiltrated the church," he said. "And the church needs to be cleansed."

Bertain went on to say he believes Vasa is "doing what needs to be done."

"He is angry with the perpetrators and those who covered up and has a very, very difficult job," Bertain said. "I also believe the church will survive and continue its good works. We will probably be faced with even tougher times but I know that Christ and the Holy Spirit will be with us until Christ returns."

It does appear tougher times remain on the horizon. In addition to the lawsuit filed in Los Angeles, the California Attorney General's Office has opened what appears to be a large-scale criminal and civil probe of the church's handling of abuse allegations. A Los Angeles law firm has been running advertisements in the Journal and other newspapers seeking victims of local clergy abuse for the last few weeks. Pope Francis, meanwhile, has scheduled a summit on clerical sexual abuse for next month, when the world's nearly 130 bishops are expected to gather in Rome to discuss the issue.

Despite the apologies and new focus on abuse, others see little indication things have improved. Piscitelli, the abuse survivor turned advocate, sees Vasa's disclosure as simply the latest example of damage control, saying the bishop is just trying to get out in front of the attorney general's investigation in the wake of damning reports in Pennsylvania and Minnesota. Others have pointed out that the vast majority of priests on the Santa Rosa list of 39 — 27 — are now deceased and that 21 had already been named publicly, making their disclosures less painful for the diocese.

Piscitelli thinks the number of reported abusers is likely much higher, to say nothing of those who went unreported and additional records that clergy may have destroyed. And the fact that the diocese is stonewalling requests to release the assignment histories of the accused priests just reinforces the fact that the church — despite what it says now — isn't really interested in finding additional victims, he says. (By Vasa's count, the Santa Rosa Diocese has already confirmed approximately 100 victims of abuse at the hands of its priests.) So while it's long overdue, Piscitelli isn't interested in the diocese's apologies and prayers.

"Their apologies for this horrendous behavior are useless, meaningless and are a slap in the face to all victims who have been sexually assaulted by the debased Roman Catholic Church syndicate," he says. "I know of no crime syndicate in the world that has caused such a devastating amount of damage to children — intentionally — than that of the Catholic Church."

In one of his pieces in January's North Coast Catholic, Vasa talks of "the need for forgiveness" and specifically addresses the church's many victims.

"I beg you for your forgiveness certainly for the sake of the church and because the church needs your forgiveness but especially for your own sake," he wrote. "This wound and hurt which has been inflicted upon you can only be healed in the way which Jesus offers and that is the way of forgiveness."

Moving forward, the question the church, its parishioners and its victims are left to grapple with is how does one forgive the unforgiveable?

Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

Reporting Abuse

The Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP) urges church abuse victims to reach out to it at (877) 762-7432 and/or local law enforcement. Victims can also fill out an online complaint form with the Office of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra at https://oag.ca.gov/clergyabuse. And more information about SNAP can be found at www.snapnetwork.org/resources_for_survivors.

Roman Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa Bishop Robert Vasa, meanwhile, is urging victims of sexual abuse at the hands of clergy to contact Diocese Victim Assistance Coordinator Julie Sparacio at (707) 566-3308, saying the diocese "is very interested in meeting and offering assistance ... including offering counseling and compensation for harm done."

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About The Author

Thadeus Greenson

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Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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