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Diocese Reviewing Files

Apr 12, 2002 | Mercury News

The Oakland Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church says it is reviewing 20 cases of sexual misconduct involving priests, including more than a dozen that involve children.

``Some of these cases go back 40 years, but victims are still coming forward,'' Sister Barbara Flannery, diocese chancellor and liaison with law enforcement in sexual abuse cases, told the Mercury News. ``Not all the cases deal with minors; some involve consensual sexual misconduct with other adults.''

The disclosure comes two days after San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan surprised officials in the San Francisco Archdiocese with a request for records of any sexual abuse by clergy or staff reported in the past 75 years.

And on Thursday, the San Mateo County district attorney said, he, too, would request records of any cases that can still be prosecuted. The 450,000-member archdiocese includes San Mateo County as well as Marin County, whose district attorney said she has not decided whether to request records./

The Santa Clara County district attorney has no plans to request any records from the San Jose Diocese.

``This is a duty on all religions to come forward, so we would not be specifically writing a letter to request this,'' said Victoria Brown, head of the district attorney's sexual assault unit. ``If we were going to ask the Catholic Church, then we might want to ask other religions and people in other professions as well.''

The Oakland incidents are among a string of such revelations in the past several months by dioceses across the country.

Only three of the 20 Oakland cases have been turned over to police. They include that of Robert E. Freitas, a well-known East Bay priest arrested this week on charges of sexually abusing a teenager in 1979. Flannery indicated the diocese would make a case-by-case determination on whether to volunteer any others.

``We probably wouldn't just open up our books to the DA,'' she said. ``But if they asked us for them, we'd cooperate because our policies are quite clear. Since 1995, we've taken a stance that we will not cover things up.''

A few of the cases concern priests who have died, and two were spawned by police stings that snared priests having sex with anonymous gay partners, she said. Five were ministry-related, in which a priest had sexual relations with another consenting adult he'd met through his clerical duties.

Flannery said 13 cases ``have to do with various cases of abuse of minors, some involving pedophiles, some not.''

Alameda County District Attorney Tom Orloff said his office might want to look at the files if any contain allegations of serious misconduct. ``But I'd hate to speculate about how we might proceed other than developing a dialogue with the diocese.''

Orloff said he would not be making any requests similar to that of Hallinan's.

``Going back 75 years isn't really a fruitful endeavor,'' Orloff said. ``In most cases the priest would be 100 years old and the victim 85 if they are still alive.''

Orloff said that with all the publicity right now ``anyone who thinks they were victimized can come forward and it will be dealt with,'' he said. ``There are those who many years ago went through something and have resolved it. For us to knock on the door and ask if something happened would be upsetting to them.''

As for Hallinan's request, Maurice Healy, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco, said: ``We intend to cooperate the best we can.'' He expects to have the task done by late April, but said there was no fixed deadline. He said he was unable Thursday to determine whether the archdiocese has any open investigations into sexual misconduct.

Two S.J. cases

After searching records going back to the mid-1970s, the San Jose Diocese found two cases in which priests were accused of sexual misconduct with minors, according to spokeswoman Roberta Ward. Both priests were prosecuted and convicted, one in the 1970s and one in the early 1990s, she said.

Ward said the diocese would notify law enforcement authorities of any allegations involving sexual misconduct with minors. If the case involved an adult victim, she said, the policy of the diocese is to either report the incident or encourage the person with the complaint to report it.

The arrest of Oakland's Freitas, 51, comes after a lengthy effort to rehabilitate the priest.

Freitas, who had been charged with two felony counts of committing a lewd act on a minor in the winter of 1979, was picked up Monday. His alleged victim, now 38 and diagnosed with AIDS, had called the diocese to say he'd been molested years earlier by the priest at the Santa Paula Catholic Church in Fremont.

Problems with Freitas surfaced in 1985 after two teenage boys complained the priest had abused them, diocese officials said Thursday. An out-of-court settlement was reached with one victim's family, Flannery said.

The second victim never took the matter any further. Fremont police, however, say they are looking into the possibility that there may be two additional victims who claim Freitas abused them 20 years ago.

In any case, ``Father Freitas was sent away for evaluation and had multi-years of intensive therapy,'' said Flannery, adding that police this week had taken all of her files on the priest.

According to the police report, Freitas was seen by two counselors: Don Cotton, who is now dead, with the state of California; and Jeff Bodmerturner, who lives on the East Coast. Bodmerturner said he had ``no comment'' about Freitas. Officials at St. Luke's Institute in Maryland would not confirm if Freitas had received treatment there.

``The prognosis of the therapist was this was a case of arrested development, where essentially Father Freitas was kind of stuck at a certain age, but that he was not a pedophile,'' Flannery said.

Diocese officials decided Freitas ``could be reassigned to the ministry on a limited basis, but that if he continued to work as a priest, he should continue with his therapy, which he did.''

Flannery said the diocese knows of no other complaints against Freitas beyond the events of 1985 and the current criminal matter.

Freitas resumes ministry

In the years since he was sent to a so-called ``House of Affirmation'' on the Peninsula for additional therapy and ostensibly rehabilitated, Freitas did clerical work at a local AIDS clinic. He also was allowed to exercise a limited ministry at St. Lawrence O'Toole School in Oakland, saying Sunday Mass and living in the rectory about 100 yards from a K-8 parish school. It was not clear whether school officials knew about Freitas' past. But according to a Fremont police report, Freitas asked church officials to move him from O'Toole because ``he felt uncomfortable being so close to school.''

That proximity to minors, however, didn't worry the church during Freitas' first years there, Flannery said. ``No contact with minors was allowed. Besides, kids in that age group weren't his issue, so we weren't concerned about that.''

However, in 1995, as churches across the country began to re-examine the way they dealt with sexually abusive priests, the Oakland Diocese underwent a sea change in how it handled people like Freitas.

``It was like suddenly a light goes on,'' said Flannery, ``and we decided to immediately improve our policies and procedures that deal with offenders within the priesthood.''

Drawing a line

She said with the creation of its Sensitive Issues Committee, the diocese drew a line: ``Now our policy is clear. If you've offended a minor, you don't go back into the ministry.'' Still, Freitas was moved in 1998 to live in the rectory at St. Alphonsus in San Leandro, where he was still allowed to say Mass. During the day, he was performing services for elderly nuns at the Sisters of the Holy Family Motherhouse in Fremont.

In the days before Freitas' arrest this week, the priest reportedly had had enough of the Catholic Church. Flannery said she understood that Freitas had voluntarily initiated the official process to become laicized and turn in his collar.

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