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Ex-students at S.J. Catholic School Say Priest Molested Them in '70s

Apr 25, 2002 | Mercury News

For 25 years, former students at a prestigious San Jose Catholic grade school have kept a secret: They say they were molested in the 1970s by the man who was the parish's popular and respected priest.

But over the past week, 10 men who attended the St. Martin of Tours parish school have told the Mercury News that former pastor Joseph T. Pritchard repeatedly fondled them and other young boys in his living quarters, while their parents thought they were safely playing cards and watching television after school.

At the time, some of the boys joked about it, in the way that adolescents try to laugh off a troubling experience. But few of them ever told an adult what was happening in the church's rectory. And even today, 14 years after Pritchard's death, some are still struggling to reconcile their feelings of loyalty to a man they revered, along with their dismay that he exploited their trust.

As Roman Catholics worldwide grapple with the problem of sexual abuse by clerics, the former students say the San Jose diocese must openly confront what happened at St. Martin, one of the city's most venerable and well-regarded religious institutions.

Some of the students and their families say they suspect church officials transferred Pritchard to a Los Altos church in 1978 because of the allegations, much as problem priests in other parts of the country have been shunted from one parish to the next. But San Jose diocese officials, while expressing concern for the former students, say they have no records of any complaints about Pritchard from that time, and they don't know what may have happened.

And some who knew Pritchard say they are shocked by the charges. ``I never, ever heard anyone say anything to me about anything that would even be suspicious of that type of behavior,'' said the Rev. Gary Thomas, current pastor at St. Nicholas church in Los Altos, where Pritchard was transferred.

But John Salberg, a 37-year-old sports equipment dealer, said it happened to him.

At an emotional meeting at St. Martin earlier this month, which the current pastor called to discuss sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, Salberg stood up and revealed his secret. ``You need to know this,'' he told his fellow parishioners.

A devout Catholic, who graduated from Bellarmine Preparatory and Santa Clara University, Salberg said it took all his courage to speak up. But he's frustrated that church officials have not publicly acknowledged and apologized for the molestation, which he first reported to the diocese two years ago.

Salberg and nine other men described very similar experiences with Pritchard in separate interviews with the Mercury News. They said Pritchard would reach inside their pants and underwear when they were 10, 11 and 12 years old. For at least some, it continued over several years.

Five of the men agreed to be identified; five asked to have their names withheld. All of them said it was a difficult decision to speak out, some because of embarrassment and some for fear that parishioners might see them as troublemakers.

Six said Pritchard touched their genitals; four said he rubbed them under their pants in inappropriate places. One also recounted an incident in which he complained of a stomachache and Pritchard told him to undress and lie on the priest's bed; he said he bolted from the room when Pritchard took his own clothes off and lay next to him.

The father of another former student said that he wrote a letter of complaint to church officials in 1977, after learning that Pritchard had groped his son. The son, who didn't want his name published, told the Mercury News that Pritchard touched his genitals ``maybe a dozen times'' before he became upset and told his parents.

A few weeks later, the student's father said the family got a phone call from the San Francisco archdiocese, which had jurisdiction over local churches at that time. He said a diocese official told them Pritchard was getting therapy and would be transferred.

Church officials could not explain why the family's complaint was not on file. A spokesman for the San Francisco archdiocese said that normal procedure in the 1970s would call for an investigation and a written follow-up report.

There also are no records to show whether any steps were taken to prevent similar behavior when Pritchard was transferred to St. Nicholas, where he served as pastor until he died of cancer in 1988, according to the Rev. Francis Cilia, vicar for clergy and a top aide to San Jose Bishop Patrick McGrath.

``There is no paper trail,'' Cilia said. ``There is nothing in the file indicating a problem or any complaints.''

Retired Bishop Pierre DuMaine, who was head of the San Jose diocese from 1981 until 1999, said he never heard of any such complaint about Pritchard. A relative of Pritchard's expressed dismay at the allegations.

``He's been dead for 14 years, so he's obviously not here to speak for himself,'' said Mary Durand, a niece who lives in Santa Rosa.

``I know that he prayed daily to bring healing into the lives of people he met,'' she added. ``I believe my uncle would have just compassion for the people who are saying these things and that are hurt, no matter who they are, and he would sincerely seek to bring healing to them.''

Officials at the San Jose diocese say they have offered counseling to anyone who comes forward as a victim of sexual abuse. And in recent years, they have adopted policies that restrict priests from spending time alone with minors.

But beyond that, McGrath said Wednesday, ``there is very little I can do unless people come forward.'' Salberg, he said, is the only St. Martin student who has contacted church officials.

Salberg and some of the others say the diocese's response is inadequate. ``The church should be coming to us,'' Salberg said. He said the diocese should conduct its own investigation and ``come clean'' with members of the St. Martin parish.

``I love being Catholic,'' added Salberg. ``St. Martin's, Bellarmine and Santa Clara University define my life, define my values. But we were always taught that if we ever want to grow, we have got to get everything out in the open, all our sins. As difficult as it is, as much as it hurts, that's what we need to do.''

All of the men interviewed said they have no interest in filing suit or seeking monetary compensation from church authorities.

``I think we're their worst nightmare, but I don't want to be their nightmare. I'm a good Catholic,'' said Mark Trillo, a former St. Martin student who now lives in Hollister and sends his children to a parochial school there.

As Trillo, now 37, recalls it, Pritchard put his hand down Trillo's pants -- not touching his genitals, but far enough ``that if it happened to my son right now, I'd probably kill somebody. And you can quote me on that.''

For most of the men, the fondling happened more than once. Each described episodes lasting five to 10 minutes that would begin under seemingly innocent circumstances, but which left them feeling increasingly unsettled.

Often, they said, the incidents occurred while other youngsters were in the priest's living room, which was furnished with a television, games and a table where boys played cards. Every so often, Pritchard would call one over to his desk.

``He would have you on his lap and he'd start tickling you and all of a sudden he'd slip his hand down,'' said Jim Banister, a 36-year-old firefighter who now lives in the Sacramento area.

``At first, you're thinking: `What happened?' The second time, you're thinking: `Did that just happen?' ''

Several former students said they are still wrestling with the belated realization that their trust was betrayed by someone they admired -- and whom their parents admired as well.

``The painful part, the real dilemma is: We all loved Father Pritchard,'' explained Eric Skavdahl, 37, who works for a Silicon Valley semiconductor equipment firm. ``He was very good to us. We knew he was someone we could go to if we had problems. That's why it's so difficult to talk about.''

Still, Skavdahl added: ``I remember the feeling of knowing that if he called you over, you'd be apprehensive about whether it was going to happen again.''

Parishioners had no reason to be apprehensive about Pritchard when he came to St. Martin in 1972. At age 48, he had already served more than two decades as a priest.

Pritchard's father was a local doctor and a two-term mayor of Santa Clara. The youngest of five siblings, Pritchard had been something of a religious prodigy. According to his obituary, he had memorized the catechism at age 4 and was encouraged as a child to become a priest.

He studied at St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park and then worked as a priest at two churches in San Francisco. He also taught at Serra High School in San Mateo and served at St. Cyprian Church in Sunnyvale before he came to San Jose.

It was a desirable assignment. St. Martin has a large and active membership, including affluent residents of the nearby Rose Garden neighborhood, as well as solidly middle-class families that have lived in the area for generations.

In recent years, there has been fierce competition among young families to get their children admitted to the parish school, which teaches kindergarten through eighth grade. The highly regarded school sends many of its graduates to the area's best high schools and colleges. During the 1970s, students and their families formed a tight community, forging close ties that still exist today.

Longtime parish members describe Pritchard as a priest who had a commanding presence saying Mass, but who liked to share a laugh at parties and barbecues. Students at the parish school say he was warm and affectionate -- a friendly figure who would intervene when they got in trouble with their teachers and who always kept cold sodas for them in his fridge. Altar boys and other students were always welcome to spend time there after school.

``He was very popular. We thought that was a safe place for them,'' said the mother of a former St. Martin student.

Some of the men interviewed by the Mercury News say their parents still have trouble believing Pritchard could do anything wrong.

As the boys grew older, they said, they began to avoid Pritchard's invitation to sit on his lap. Some of them even began calling the priest ``Father Grab 'Ems'' among themselves.

``We were joking about it, but it wasn't a joke,'' said Skavdahl.

But for the most part they never confided in any adults. Some said they were too young to recognize that there was anything sexual involved. And when they did realize it was wrong, they feared upsetting their families.

``This went on for years, and we knew it was wrong,'' said Salberg, who said he can't remember how many times it happened to him.

``We didn't ask for it. But we still weren't going to say anything to our parents. It would have made our parents hurt and angry. We were all pretty much smart enough to keep quiet.''

Only recently has that feeling begun to change.

Salberg first told officials at the San Jose diocese two years ago. He said he had been worried about a friend who was also molested at St. Martin and who seemed to have a lot of anger about it. Salberg's fiancee, Lori Uchiyama, encouraged him to confide in another friend who is a priest in Southern California. That priest urged Salberg to report what happened.

Two members of the diocese's ``sensitive incident team'' talked with Salberg and offered him counseling. Salberg said he was doing fine, but he asked the diocese to reach out to other St. Martin students who might be hurting more. The officials said they were reluctant to do that.

``We believe there are more people, but they have not come forward,'' Cilia said this week. ``Some people heal their wounds and don't want them re-opened. Some people are just getting by. It's a judgment call, I suppose. You try to take people as they are ready.''

Nothing further happened until recently. As the issue of sexual misconduct began to make headlines around the country in recent weeks, Salberg and some of his former classmates began to talk.

Then the Mercury News published an article in which McGrath said diocesan records show two cases of priests who fondled minors over the last 25 years. Both of those cases were referred for criminal prosecution -- which never happened with Pritchard.

Salberg said he was angry that the bishop did not mention St. Martin. ``It's like they're saying it never happened to us. It's like we don't matter.''

McGrath said Wednesday that he mentioned only the two cases because he was thinking about priests who are alive and still active in the ministry.

Salberg called the diocese after the article appeared and spoke with Cilia. The vicar said he has tried to respond to Salberg's request for more action. When the bishop circulated a letter to parishioners six weeks ago, expressing his concern over the issue of sexual misconduct, the diocese added a paragraph that was partly at Salberg's request.

The paragraph invited anyone who had been victimized to come forward and get help. It did not, however, mention St. Martin.

Cilia also said the recent meeting for St. Martin parishioners was called by the current pastor, the Rev. David Mercer, for those ``who wanted to come forward and talk.''

But Salberg and another parishioner, who had heard of the abuse, complained that Mercer told them the meeting was for general discussion only -- and that anyone who wanted to talk about a specific experience should contact him privately.

Nonetheless, both did speak out.

Mercer declined to speak with the Mercury News, referring questions to the diocese. Salberg gives the pastor credit for speaking forcefully, if in general terms, about the need to root out sexual misconduct from the church.

``I really think Father Dave has his heart and mind in the right place,'' Salberg said. ``I just think he doesn't know what to do.''

Several former St. Martin students said they know what the church should do.

Salberg said he wants the diocese to contact former St. Martin students, acknowledge what happened and apologize.

McGrath said he is willing to issue an acknowledgment and apology if he hears from others who say they were molested. He also offered to reach out to specific individuals if he gets information that they may have been molested. But he said it would be impractical for the church to search for victims, such as by writing a general letter to St. Martin families.

``I want people to come forward,'' he said. ``I do not want to invade people's privacy.''

Banister, the firefighter, said he doesn't want all priests tarred by the actions of a few. But he does want the church to take responsibility for what happened at St. Martin.

``I feel they should make sure that people aren't having a difficult time. They should want to guarantee that nobody is dealing with the issue in a negative fashion,'' he said.

``You have to acknowledge what happened,'' added Chris Canelo, 39. He was two years ahead of Salberg and said he remembers Pritchard reaching down inside his pant leg.

The church should follow its own teachings, Canelo said. ``Repentance comes from admission and being willing to look at the problem straight in the face. You detest your sins, and you ask for forgiveness and you change.''


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