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Women Claim Abuse At Church

Nov 15, 2002 | The Argus Church bells rang on the hour, clergy and parishioners attended Mass, and schoolchildren dodged autumn leaves while shuffling to class on an unseasonably warm morn-ing.

It was an idyllic day in many ways at St. Bede's Catholic Church and Parochial School on Thursday.

But Terrie Light and Union City native Jennifer Chapin told a different story at a press conference held on the steps of the Hayward church.

There, the two former St. Bede's parishioners claimed that they were sexually abused as children by Monsignor George J. Francis, the former longtime pastor of the church.

Francis, who arrived at St. Bede's in 1957, retired in 1988

and died 10 years later after serving 60 years as a priest.

Chapin filed a lawsuit Thursday in Alameda County Superior Court in Hayward seeking unspecified damages against the Catholic Diocese of Oakland and other church officials, claiming that she was victimized by "abuse of every sexual nature" at the hands of the respected clergyman. The lawsuit alleges that Francis began molesting her in 1979, when she was 5, and continued until 1982, when she was 8.

Light, now 51, said she, too, was abused by Francis 20 years earlier, starting in 1959 when she was 7. She previously made her allegations public in May 1998, when she held an "informational picket" before a Sunday service at St. Bede's, she said.

The abuse of Chapin occurred when Francis took her on several unsupervised day and weekend trips to Sacramento and San Jose, she said. He also abused her every other Friday at St. Bede's rectory during the same three-year period, Chapin claims.

"He (Francis) told me that God would take someone I loved if I told anyone," she said. "He (Francis) was the evil. God is not."

Chapin known as Jennifer Weise before her marriage and her family were very close to Francis, she said.

Francis took advantage of that relationship and damaged it, said Rick Simons, a Hayward attorney representing Chapin.

"This lawsuit is about healing and prevention," Simons said. "And the church is once again ... putting protection of pedophile priests over protection of children who've been victims in the past, and who may be victims in the future."

The number of people who have accused Francis either publicly or privately of sexual abuse is now "four or five," said Sister Barbara Flannery of the Diocese of Oakland.

"The people who have come forward and accused Monsignor Francis have no connection to each other, and their stories are very similar," she said. "We have no reason to disbelieve them."

Messages left Thursday with the current St. Bede's pastor, Father Seamus Farrell, were not returned.

"By going public, I hope to help my healing," said Chapin. "I hope the church will have more outreach to survivors. They need to hold priests more accountable. Priests need to be criminally prosecuted when they do this."

The Diocese of Oakland is taking steps, according to Flannery, to educate parishioners, clergy, students and abuse survivors on how to prevent abuse, through church programs and by getting the word out in newsletters, posters and brochures.

"We're learning how to reach out to survivors, to learn how to help them," said Flannery. "It's a learning process."

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