The honor was overwhelming, and the money was tough to turn down.
The pastor of Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Niles had invited Dan McNevin, then a 12-year-old altar boy, to answer phones in the parish office.
Raised in a blue-collar family in Niles, McNevin was used to earning pocket change delivering papers and mowing lawns. Now, the leader of his spiritual community, the Rev. James Clark, was offering $2 a day for only a few hours of work, McNevin recalled.
“It felt good to be liked and wanted, particularly by the man who is next in line to God,” said McNevin, now 44.
But McNevin said Clark’s generous offer was the first step in what psychologists call “grooming,” a process of gaining favor with kids to dissuade them from speaking up about sexual abuse.
McNevin, a San Francisco real estate developer and former professional soccer player, is one of three men suing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland and others over the damage they say was caused by Clark, who died in 1989.
Ten months after McNevin took the job, Clark fondled him one night in the church rectory, McNevin says in his suit. He and the two other men are asking for an unspecified monetary settlement.
McNevin said he initially wanted to remain anonymous, but now he is going public, saying he is sure other victims will relate to his story and he wants them to come forward and get help.
“You don’t ever recover from this,” McNevin said. “You adjust. But you can’t move on until you confront it.”
Other altar boys skeptical
Two other men who served as altar boys at Corpus Christi, however, are skeptical of McNevin’s story.
They remember Clark as a man who helped families through difficult times, visited area hospitals regularly, who took his altar boys on miniature golfing trips and encouraged them to lead honorable lives.
Tim Avila said he spent extensive time alone with Clark.
“He had a real sense of what was right,” Avila said, remembering a time when Clark encouraged his younger sister to write a letter to the pope because she couldn’t serve as an altar girl. “He was someone who took the time to talk to us about what was right and wrong.”
Former Niles resident Edward Mooney was an altar boy about the same time as McNevin. He remembers Clark tossing them a few coins on occasion, jokingly warning them to not spend it at Joe’s Corner, a local bar.
“I find (the allegations) hard to believe,” said Mooney, who now lives in Solano County. “I want to believe that it’s someone just jumping on the bandwagon.”
McNevin, however, said the courts were his last resort. He first confronted his abuse in his early 30s, he said, shortly after his professional soccer career had ended.
He told his story to the Diocese of Oakland two years ago, hoping officials would answer his questions and openly acknowledge his claims about Clark’s abusive behavior.
Sister Barbara Flannery, chancellor for the diocese, was extremely comforting and warm, McNevin said. But the diocese failed to follow up its promise to look for other victims, he said.
“They have an obligation much greater than a few thousand dollars,” McNevin said. “If they want to rebuild trust, they need to take responsibility and open their books and be real about it.”
Flannery said McNevin’s case is difficult because Clark is dead. The priest’s record is clean, she said.
“There is nothing in the record that indicated he had molested anyone,” she said.
But McNevin said Flannery told him initially that Clark had an “inappropriate” relationship at one point and was sent to rehabilitation. Flannery denied making those statements.
But she said she may have been “more candid” with McNevin because at the time he indicated he had no intention of suing.
“The problem is when you get into litigation, it ties your hands,” Flannery said. “You can’t have the same type of relationship. … We do have a right and obligation to protect the assets of the diocese.”
McNevin’s attorney, said the diocese has refused to turn over records that may indicate Clark had problems with alcoholism which even his supporters agree was a problem and they have refused to turn over records after 1980.
The case is in the “discovery” phase, in which both sides are supposed to share information. A trial date has not been set.
Clark served at Corpus Christi from 1964 to 1984. He oversaw construction of the parish center, which is named in his honor.
Roughly half of church members remember Clark, said the Rev. Tim Stier, who has been pastor of the church since 1992. It has been a difficult and confusing few months for church members, Stier said.
“I’m not going to make a judgment about Father Clark or Dan McNevin until the facts are known,” he said. “I’ve encouraged the congregation to do the same.”
Clark is one of 45 priests in the diocese accused or convicted of child molestation. He is the third Tri-City area priest known to have been accused or convicted of abuse.
All three of Clark’s accusers claim emotional distress from sexual abuse in the early 1970s while serving as altar boys. One of the victims severed part of his hand after a mental breakdown in 1980, according to the lawsuit. The man, who will spend the rest of his life institutionalized, said he thought it was the only way he would gain entrance to heaven, family members said.
Psychologists say priests who abuse are extremely careful about whom they select as victims. It is very possible for other children to have served with Clark and not have experienced abuse, said Paul Abramson, a psychology professor at University of California, Los Angeles, who has testified in numerous priest abuse cases.
“They are looking for a degree of devotion, someone who is more socially isolated who will accept authority,” he said. “They are very skilled.”
Shortly after McNevin accepted Clark’s offer to work in the parish office, the priest began appearing partially clothed, McNevin said. Then he started patting the young boy on the chest, remarking on how fast he was growing, McNevin said.
Months went by, and the priest began encouraging the boy to take off some of his clothing as well, McNevin said. Then one day, Clark fondled McNevin’s genitals, McNevin said.
“I said, ‘This is wrong,'” McNevin said. “And he said, ‘You’re right. If I ever do that again, punch me in the stomach.'”
McNevin refused to go to church after that. The emotional effects, he said, have been immeasurable. He has spent thousands of dollars on therapy, and he still has trouble trusting people in positions of authority, he said.
Now, he said, he wants to help others deal with the pain.
“If one other person comes forward because of this, it will have been worth it,” he said. “It isn’t too late to seek help.”