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Retired Priest Is Held in '70s Sex Abuse

Carl Sutphin, accused of molesting four boys in Oxnard and Camarillo, is arrested at his mother's home and jailed on $500,000 bail

Apr 5, 2003 | Los Angeles Times A retired Catholic priest accused of molesting four boys in Camarillo and Oxnard in the 1970s was arrested Friday morning by Ventura County authorities.

Father Carl Sutphin, 70, who was forced to retire from his job at the new cathedral in downtown Los Angeles last year because of sexual abuse allegations, was arrested at his mother's home in Ventura. Sutphin was charged with 10 counts of felony molestation.

The boys, two of whom were brothers, were 9 to 12 years old when the abuse allegedly occurred, Deputy Dist. Atty. Douglas Ridley said. Sutphin is accused of molesting the children while on a fishing trip, on the way home from a trip to a local mission and while administering confession in one boy's home.

Sutphin became close with the boys while working as an associate pastor at St. Mary Magdalen Church in Camarillo from 1971 to 1975 and when he worked as a chaplain at St. John's Regional Medical Center in Oxnard, starting in 1975 and running through 1991, Ridley said.

"This is a guy who was trusted to lead these boys into their adulthood, and instead he took advantage of that, using his position in the church to mess them up for the rest of their lives," Ridley said.

Sutphin is scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday in Ventura County Superior Court. He remained in Ventura County Jail on Friday in lieu of $500,000 bail.

Don Steier, Sutphin's Los Angeles attorney, said his client had offered to surrender but authorities "chose to take a different approach."

Steier called his client's bail amount "outrageous."

"He cares for his mother," Steier said. "He's known about this investigation for more than a year. He's no more of a flight risk than [Ventura County Dist. Atty.] Greg Totten is."

Steier declined comment on specifics of the case, but said that Sutphin would plead not guilty.

Sutphin's arrest the first of a priest in Ventura County comes one week after authorities filed criminal charges against Father Fidencio Silva, 53, former head of the altar-boy program at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Oxnard. Silva is believed to be in Mexico, and authorities are prepared to extradite him if he is found.

Since the Catholic Church's sex-abuse scandal erupted last year, at least six former priests have been arrested in Los Angeles and two in Orange County.

Silva and Sutphin are two of at least three Ventura County priests under investigation by the district attorney's office on suspicion of molesting more than a dozen children during the 1970s and 1980s. The third is Michael Wempe, 62, who is accused of molesting three boys between 1976 and 1985 while serving at St. Jude Church in Westlake Village.

The Ventura County Grand Jury also is investigating sexual abuse by priests. Four top aides to Cardinal Roger M. Mahony testified before the panel last month.

As the investigations continue, the clock is ticking on a state-imposed, one-year time limit between police learning of possible molestations and prosecutors filing charges.

Ridley said the investigation of Sutphin consisted of interviewing victims, whose corroborating accusations enable a case against the priest to be filed outside of the normal statute of limitations. If convicted, Sutphin would be sentenced under the law as it was in the mid-1970s, which means he faces a maximum of 17 years in state prison, Ridley said.

Last year, archdiocese officials cited Sutphin's case as one they felt they had handled effectively.

As soon as officials became aware of the allegations against him in 1991, they took action, said Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

The church sent him to St. Luke's Institute in Maryland for therapy, which continued back in Los Angeles over the next several years. Officials also placed him in jobs where he would not encounter children, including acting as a chaplain at a retirement home for priests.

The initial allegations against Sutphin were lodged in 1991 by Andrew Cicchillo, who said that he and his twin brother were molested by the priest more than 20 years earlier, while Sutphin was associate pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church in Maywood.

In a 2002 interview, Cicchillo said he broke his silence when he heard that Sutphin was working at St. John's, with all the opportunities any hospital offers to interact with children.

But it wasn't the Cicchillo brothers' accusations that prompted Sutphin's arrest by Ventura County authorities.

In 1994, a parochial school teacher in Ventura County told a monsignor that her two sons said they had been molested on a 1976 fishing trip with Sutphin, according to a lawsuit filed by the family against the archdiocese.

Despite his apparent problems, Sutphin impressed a number of other priests. In an interview last year, Msgr. Kevin Kostelnik said his colleagues saw him as "a faithful worker in several gritty assignments for a man his age, and we never had a hint of any inappropriate contact."

Sutphin was sent to work at St. Vibiana's Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles in 1995, after the church had been heavily damaged in an earthquake. He ran a recovery program for Spanish-speaking sex abusers and ministered to the homeless, according to church officials.

He also lived in the same rectory as Mahony and other priests. Mahony has said he never raised the issue of sexual abuse with Sutphin in those years.

In March 2001, Sutphin was named associate pastor at the archdiocese's crown jewel, the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. At the time the cathedral "was still a construction site," the archdiocese's Tamberg said.

"He was placed at the cathedral precisely because it was a very restricted place for him to be," he said.

In February 2002, Sutphin was permanently removed from ministry. "He doesn't wear a collar and can't function as a priest," Tamberg said.

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