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Post-Dallas: Santa Rosa priests, victims meet

Santa Rosa, Calif.

Catholic clerics from this scandal-battered diocese met June 18 with victims of more than two decades of child molestation, an era when bishops and clergy alike formed a wall of secrecy around the crimes of five priests.

“You could see the pain in their eyes,” said Fr. David Shaw, pastor of Resurrection Parish, recalling the victims’ testimony at a diocesan retreat.

Shaw, a priest for 34 years, and Bishop Daniel Walsh, who took over the 140,000-member Northern California diocese two years ago, believe the standards set by U.S. bishops and a reinvigorated laity spell an end to the sexual misconduct revealed in lawsuits and criminal prosecutions since 1994.

The diocese already has implemented most of the reforms in the national policy adopted by the bishops at their recent conference in Dallas, including a lay-clergy review board to investigate sex abuse claims.

Walsh has encouraged sex abuse victims to go to the police, and Shaw asserts that bishops, despite the absence of sanctions in the national policy, will never again shield sex offenders from prosecution or transfer them from one job to another.

“The laity will hold their feet to the fire,” Shaw said.

But the sprawling diocese, which stretches from Santa Rosa to the Oregon border, looks back on a sordid history of sex crimes, cover-ups and payoffs.

Two priests have been sent to state prison. Another committed suicide in 1995 and his accuser died in March 2001 of chronic drug abuse. The diocese acknowledges paying $7.4 million to settle sex abuse victims’ claims.

Court records show that two former Santa Rosa bishops -- Mark Hurley and John Steinbock -- failed to discipline priests who were violating the law and the trust of teenage parishioners. A third former bishop, G. Patrick Ziemann, fired three priests accused of sexual misconduct but loaned one of them $40,000 for his legal defense.

Hurley is deceased. Steinbock, now bishop of Fresno, Calif., has taken a hard line on sexual misconduct in that Central California diocese.

Ziemann, who resigned after admitting a homosexual relationship with another priest in 1999, left the diocese $16 million in debt. He lives at a Benedictine monastery near Tombstone, Ariz.

Hurley’s tenure from 1969-87 was marked by child molestations the length of the diocese, but shrouded in secrecy.

“I’ve never gone to the police,” Hurley said in a 1995 deposition. “I think there’s a danger in that and therefore, I never reported anything on anybody to the police.”

Hurley also testified that he tore up confidential personnel records before leaving the chancery. He died last year after surgery at a San Francisco hospital.

His brother, Frank Hurley, is the retired archbishop of Anchorage, Alaska.

Under oath, Mark Hurley emphatically denied any knowledge of wrongdoing by former priest Gary Timmons prior to 1994, when allegations by the son of a Sonoma County judge and prominent Catholic were first reported.

That story in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat newspaper began a revelation of the diocese’s dirty secrets eight years before sex abuse by priests and cover-ups by bishops became a national scandal.

The judge’s son, Stephen Gallagher, told a reporter in 1995 that he remembered Timmons taking him, at age 9, to his bedroom at St. Eugene’s rectory in Santa Rosa and Hurley turned to another priest and said: “Don’t leave Fr. Timmons alone with that child in that room.”

Timmons, who faced civil and criminal charges for molesting as many as 18 youths, was convicted in 1996. He served four years in prison and was released in 2000.

Timmons left the church and is now a registered sex offender.

Another serial child molester, Fr. Austin Peter Keegan, was accepted into Hurley’s diocese in 1976. Accused of molesting boys as many as 50 times in Santa Rosa from 1979-82, Keegan never faced charges there or in San Francisco, where he was a notorious molester in three parishes in the 1960s and ’70s.

Suspicion lingers that Keegan, who allegedly sodomized young boys, was dumped by the church in Santa Rosa. Keegan later turned up working as a priest in Mexico, his last know address.

A Sonoma County man, Michael Pavelka, was paid $450,000 to settle his claim of abuse by Keegan in 1995.

Two other accused molesters are dead. Fr. John Rogers committed suicide in Belgium when called home for psychiatric evaluation in 1995. (His accuser, Patrick McBride, died six years later of drug abuse.) Fr. Vincent O’Neill died of a brain tumor in 1998, a year after the diocese settled abuse claims by five former altar boys for an undisclosed amount of money.

Steinbock, who headed the Santa Rosa diocese from 1987-91, was called to testify this year in the trial of Don Kimball, the priest who used a nationally known radio youth ministry to cultivate teenage victims.

“You try to save a person’s priesthood if possible,” Steinbock said in March, when asked why he had tried to reassign Kimball.

Under oath, Steinbock said he suspended Kimball, who refused reassignment, after Kimball admitted in 1990 to having sexual contact with six young girls. The bishop said he had taken no disciplinary action three years earlier, when he was first advised of Kimball’s misconduct.

Kimball was sentenced June 7 to seven years in prison for molesting a 13-year-old girl in 1981. Lawsuits filed by four of Kimball’s victims were settled for $1.6 million in 2000.

In the Fresno diocese, Steinbock has removed three priests in the past 10 years, two of them for allowing themselves to be alone with boys.

But in a 1999 deposition, Steinbock admitted that he had never tried to find all of Kimball’s victims.

“I didn’t have knowledge,” he said. “You know, we had so many people involved here now. I don’t know, do we have them all identified or not yet?”

Guion M. Kovner is a newspaper reporter who lives in Occidental, Calif.

National Catholic Reporter, July 5, 2002