California AG Probes Catholic Clergy Sex Abuse, Cover-Ups

It took decades for Joey Piscitelli to come forward with his story of abuse and another three years after that to take his accused rapist, Father Stephen Whelan, to court. But the Salesians of Don Bosco—the Catholic order that employed Whelan at a Bay Area all-boys high school where he was said to have assaulted Piscitelli from 1969 to 1971—treated the allegations as a joke.

In closing arguments during a 2006 jury trial, the Salesians compared Piscitelli to James Frey, the author who famously tried to pass off his novel A Million Little Pieces as a gritty addiction memoir. The defense produced a short video, which showed a mock book cover titled My Story of Abuse by Joey Piscitelli before flashing the word “fiction” in big, bold letters across the screen.

“They just made a mockery out of it,” Piscitelli, a 63-year-old East Bay resident, recalls. “Their lead attorney would laugh at me.”

Though he ultimately won two appeals and a $600,000 judgment, it wasn’t until a dozen years later—at 2pm on Sept. 26—that he felt a measure of vindication.

That was the day last month when high-ranking officials from California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office, in response to a Sept. 8 letter from Piscitelli, summoned him, two fellow Bay Area members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests—known as SNAP—and two from bishop-accountability.org to a 20th-floor conference room in a secure building on Harrison Street in downtown Oakland.

Melanie Fontes Rainer, a special assistant and chief healthcare adviser to Becerra, and AG researcher Daniel Bertoni joined them at a long oval conference table along with a handful of investigators in expensive-looking suits. From a wide screen on the wall, about 10 other state agents teleconferenced in for the meeting.

“We did most of the talking,” Piscitelli says. “They asked us about clergy exchanging child porn on the internet, taking kids from county to county or across state lines. They wanted to know which bishops were responsible for certain decisions to relocate known abusers. They wanted to know about human trafficking, child trafficking.”

Finally, he thought, a moment of reckoning would come.

San Jose priest Leonel Noia was quietly relocated to another ministry assignment after being criminally convicted of sex abuse. (Source: andersonadvocates.com)

The long-running Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal burst into public view with the Boston Globe’s storied “Spotlight” investigation in 2002 and, closer to home, San Jose Inside/Metro’s reporting on the San Jose Diocese in the early 1990s. But the recent 900-page civil grand jury report exposing extensive coverups involving 300 “predator priests” abusing 1,000 children at six dioceses in Pennsylvania seems to mark an inflection point.

While individual priests have been charged with crimes by local police and some complicit superiors pushed into retirement by the powers that be, the U.S. government never probed the criminality of higher-ranking church leadership or organizational practices that exposed children to known abusers.

With the Justice Department launching a federal inquiry into clergy abuse in Pennsylvania this past month, law enforcement has fundamentally altered its relationship with the U.S. Catholic Church by reclaiming authority from the Vatican to police its stateside criminal activities. David Hickton, former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, told CNN on Tuesday that based on questions authorities are asking about human trafficking and child porn, he believes prosecutors are planning a racketeering case against church officials—the same tactic used to take down organized crime syndicates.

Now, it appears that Becerra’s agents are looking into similar problems in California, which houses the largest population of Catholic clergy and parishioners in the country.

Renewed public outrage and intense legal scrutiny prompted Catholic church officials to make an effort to come clean. When the San Jose Diocese last week released the names of 15 priests credibly accused of sexual misconduct and pedophilia, Bishop Patrick McGrath said the move marked the end of “a culture of secrecy in the church” and the start of an era of transparency and accountability.

Events over the ensuing days made McGrath’s gesture look like something else entirely—less a show of good faith than a cynical attempt to get ahead of a fast-developing story and an unprecedented multi-jurisdictional criminal probe into clergy abuse.

One of the priests cited in a new report on alleged child abusers enabled by the San Jose Diocese. (Source: andersonadvocates.com)

Most of the abuse alleged against the list of 15 priests took place decades ago, with the most recent case in the early 2000s. Only six of the named priests are still alive: Don Flickinger, Robert Gray, Angel Mariano, Alexander Larkin, Phil Sunseri and Hernan Toro. Seven had not previously been publicly identified as abusers. At least two—Toro, who’s in San Jose’s Main Jail on new molestation charges, and Leonel Noia—were reassigned to the ministry even after being criminally convicted of sex abuse.

It quickly became clear, however, that McGrath left a lot out.

The diocese failed to mention clergy accused of abusing adults, including Edward Burke and Charles Connor, who in 2002 admitted to molesting developmentally disabled men at the Sacred Heart Jesuit Center in Los Gatos, and William Farrington, who allegedly assaulted a Bellarmine College Preparatory School student decades prior. It also failed to name priests not directly authorized by the diocese, such as Society of St. Pius X priest Benedict Van der Putten, who allegedly molested a teen girl in 2000 at St. Aloysius Retreat House in Los Gatos.

On Sunday, the Mercury News published an exposé about an exorcist at Santa Clara’s Our Lady of Peace accused of sexually abusing a rape survivor from late 2011 through 2012. The priest, Rev. Gerardus Hauwert Jr., reportedly offered to help the victim when she went to confession seeking forgiveness for a trauma-induced sex addiction.

One of the priests who was shuffled around under the San Jose Diocese's so-called "geographic solution." (Source: andersonadvocates.com)

Two days later, Jeff Anderson & Associates, a Minnesota-based law firm, unveiled a 66-page report naming 263 priests in San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco dioceses credibly accused of sexually abusing kids. Using open-source data, the first-of-its-kind report identifies 135 accused abusers in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, 95 in Oakland and 33 in the San Jose diocese.

“The publicly available statistics suggest that the Bay Area dioceses, acting in coordination and in concert, subjected its parishioners to a public safety nightmare,” the Anderson report claims, calling the San Jose Diocese a “dumping ground” for “deviant priests.”

Historically, the Bay Area dioceses, like many of their counterparts throughout the state and around the nation, knew full well that priests endangered children and vulnerable adults but chose to keep their crimes secret, according to the Anderson report. Strict internal policies kept the scope of the problem hidden from the public throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, despite government mandated reporting laws.

Angel Mariano was one of two South Bay priests who was reassigned to the ministry after being criminally convicted of sexual abuse. (Source: andersonadvocates.com)

In 2003, however, California’s Catholic church endured a flood of legal challenges after the state Legislature lifted the statute of limitations for just one year to give victims a chance to litigate old claims. For the first time, survivors of sexual abuse obtained access to internal church records through court orders.

Over the past 15 years, policymakers have resisted similar laws to extend the statute of limitations for abuse survivors. Gov. Jerry Brown, who trained to be a Jesuit priest, vetoed such a bill in 2013 and again this year, to the dismay of SNAP and other victim advocacy groups, including the National Center for Victims of Crime, the California Police Chiefs Association and the Consumer Attorneys of California.

Jeff Anderson, who represents sexual assault survivor Thomas Emens in a suit filed earlier this month in Los Angeles County Superior Court against all 12 of California’s Catholic bishops, including San Jose's McGrath, says the church continues to hide information about sexually abusive priests. The lawsuit claims that the bishops continue to engage in the “geographic solution,” that is, to move problem priests between and among dioceses without notifying the community.

That shuffling around makes it difficult to determine their whereabouts—even now.

“As far as I know,” Piscitelli says, “my abuser is still out there. And that’s a shame.”

Below is the letter that Piscitelli sent to the AG in early September, urging the office to look into the clergy abuse cover-ups. 

Dear Attorney General Becerra,

I have been a child abuse victims advocate for 16 years. In light of the extensive publicity concerning Pennsylvania and other states grand jury investigations concerning clergy sex abuse by perpetrators in the Catholic Church, I would like to implore you to do the same in California.

I think it’s commendable that your own published California Department of Justice website, under the heading “Bureau of Childrens Justice—Mission Statement,” states that :

“...staffed with civil rights and criminal prosecutors, the bureau will focus its enforcement  and advocacy efforts on several areas, including:

“childhood trauma and exposure to violence.”

If ever there was a cause that was in need of your stated enforcement and advocacy effort, to investigate childhood trauma and exposure to violence—the systematic sex abuse crimes committed against children by the clergy of the Catholic Church is deserving of this promise.

As you may have been informed,  thousands of  children were traumatized and violated by clergy in the Catholic Church in California for decades. These crimes, which include rape, molestation, sodomy and many other abhorrent acts of sex abuse, were committed by perpetrators who were systematically sheltered, protected, hidden, shuffled and enabled for in California and other states for at least 75 years.

California has the largest Catholic population in the country, and accordingly the largest population of clergy. As I have personally fielded calls, communications, texts, e-mails and letters from hundreds of clergy sex abuse victims for over 16 years, I can attest to the fact that far less than 10 percent of sex abuse victims ever come forward to authorities.

Most  therapists, psychologists, child protective agencies and child abuse experts will concur.

That stated, we respectfully rely upon you to initiate a long needed grand jury investigation to call attention, advocate, investigate and bring to light the severe sexual abuse travesties that have been criminally perpetrated upon our children by clergy of the Catholic Church for decades.

And to seek justice for the same.

The church should be held accountable, responsible, and remorseful for their reprehensible crimes upon innocent children, and this is certainly achievable and attainable by utilizing the California Department of “Justice” for just that—justice.

Here is just a small example of some of the numbers of victims of sexually abusive priests I have tracked in California. The clergy have been either/or: accused, admitted, sued, convicted in California:

Clergy Name                                                  Victims

Michael Baker ( lawsuits)                                 24 +

Salvatore Billante (convicted)                           22 +        

Vincent Breen (lawsuits)                                   10 +                                                                                                     

Donald Broderson (lawsuits)                             22 +

Bernard Dabbenne (convicted)                         12 +

George Francis (lawsuits)                                  10 +

Robert Freitas (lawsuits)                                    14 +

Michael Kelly (felony wars                               20 +

Donald Kimball (lawsuits)                                 14 +

Donald McGuire (convicted)                             40 +

Titian Miani (lawsuits)                                       12 +

Xavier Ochoa (felony warrant active)                12 +

Oliver O’Grady (his own claim)                       100 +

Patrcik O’Shea (lawsuits)                                    24 +

Danillo Pacheco (lawsuits)                                 12 +

Donald Ponciroli (lawsuits)                                  8 +

Peter Ramos (lawsuits)                                       16 +

Gary Timmons (lawsuits)                                   15 +

Gary Tollner (lawsuits)                                       14 +

Michael Wempe (lawsuits)                                  14 +

21 clergy                                                          425  alleged victims

There are over 515 sex abuser clergy named in California court documents today.

This is only 21 of them.

Although the total amount of clergy sex abuse victims in California will never be known exactly, it is estimated that is is well into the thousands -  and that is without the benefit of a grand jury investigation.

Approximately 1100 + victims have come forward to law enforcement, in lawsuits, and/or in allegations in California just in the last 15 years. Because only an estimated 10% of child abuse victims actually come forward, we can approximate that there are probably at least 10,000 victims who have been abused by clergy in California.

This staggering number should well support the much needed assistance of the Justice Department.

In addition, as I’m sure you know, the cost of health care, as a result of child abuse and it’s aftermath and collateral negative effects, is into the billions of dollars.

Thousands of clergy abuse victims, their families, their friends and supporters, and countless California residents, voters, and tens of thousands of people in the rest of the country and the world, await and expect the active support and participation of the California Justice Department.

Please activate your “Mission Statement.”

Respectfully Yours,

Joey Piscitelli

Jennifer Wadsworth is the news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

9 Comments

  1. Is it the Catholic church that is being singled out? Is it the environment of being a priest that creates this phenomenon? Is it up to the members of the church community to pass the plate, so to speak, to keep funding these lawsuits and settlements? At any rate, I’ll bet the attorneys are happy. In the end, it’s the untold victims that bear the scars of this abuse. As for the culprits, at least in this case, they just get resettled to another community. Is this a great country or what?

  2. The systemic problems of sexual harassment and abuse are just beginning to emerge in the K-12 public school system. 15 credible student allegations of sexual harassment by Dominic Caserta, a high school teacher in the Santa Clara Unified School District, have been rejected by the SCC DA and so far also by Stan Rose, superintendent of the school district. There have been no written records of sexual assault or harassment in SCUSD for the past 18 years. Everything hav been handled verbally. It appears however that many allegations of sexual harasssment and assualt have been swept under the rug!

    Stan is leading a commisstion that so far blames the victims for not filling out the right forms and the media for not seeking to interview District Administrators rather than seek actual documentation of sexual abuse and harassment. There should be an indepedent investigation of sexual hrassment, aassualt, aiding and abetting by administrators, as well as the cover up of these crimes within the system.

    The message to the brave students who came forward is to keep your mouth shut because we will ignore you and probably also engage in intimidation and reprisals.

    So yes the problem of sexual hrassment and assualt go way beyond the Catholic Church but no one really has the intestinal fortitude to address it YET!

  3. It’s a shame that there is not more focus on sexually abused females as well as males. There is genuine horror at the abuse of boys, as there should be, but abuse of girls is treated as unimportant and pretty much a joke. No one knows the number of abused non-males. Complaints against the clergy made by females is dismissed as “she asked for it” and “ prove it or it didn’t happen” and she’s just a girl and therefore unimportant”,along with “that’s what God tells us women were made for”, and “it’s not my fault, she tempted me and must be punished”. .. and Infiniti’s. The words of St. Augustine: “Let them bear children until they die of it, for that is all they are good for”, pretty much sums up the attitude.

  4. The Catholic Church is the world’s BIGGEST CRIMINAL PEDOPHILE organization!!! SHAME ON YOU, CATHOLIC OFFICIALS!! NO ONE CAN EVER TRUST YOU AGAIN!!!

  5. I’d like to know about the backgrounds of the alleged abusers. Likely some of them were abused as youths themselves, which might indicate where or how such attitudes are learned, or where they begin. If the media continues its usual breathless scandlemongering about such issues, and relegating the accused human beings to the level of monsters, and playing to the very real lynch mentality out here, then the issue unfortunately remains “beyond our ken” or “indecipherable” and somehow only monstrous and not human – and things human can be understood, if not necessarily sanctioned.

    • They are monsters. If they were abused that does not excuse going on to then abuse others as adults. It’s a choice!!!! This makes them monsters. Stop making excuses for them. People like you are the reason they continue getting away with abuse.

  6. Cardinal William Levada, while archbishop of San Francisco and after promising zero tolerance in 2002, placed pedophile priest Rev Greg Ingels as his chancellor, chief canon lawyer In charge of sex abuse policies for the American Church. Levada admitted under oath that he knew Ingels sexually assaulted kids At Marin Catholic since 1996 but appointed him anyway. One of Ingels victims parents had been killed in a car accident. Forced her to service him sexually. Levada knew it.
    They swim in a sewer in the name of Holy and the excremrnt rises to the top.
    Heartfelt thanks to all who care enough to stop it.
    AW

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