San Francisco’s Roman Catholic Archdiocese has started implementing the church’s new get-tough policy against child sexual abuse, quietly sending several priests packing even as allegations against them are under investigation.
In some of the cases, priests are leaving — either suspended with pay, placed on personal leave or retiring — as a result of complaints lodged about supposed conduct that occurred long ago. None of the priests has been charged criminally.
In the past, the archdiocese would have been free to leave such accusations to its own officials and the priests could have stayed in place while the cases were investigated. Now, however, under reforms approved by U.S. bishops in June, the archdiocese is sending any complaint against priests — current or years old — to a panel of lay experts for review.
The cases also have gone to authorities in San Francisco, Marin and San Mateo counties for investigation and possible prosecution. In May, the archdiocese furnished prosecutors with the names of about 40 current and former priests and lay employees who have been the targets of sexual abuse complaints.
The reforms approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops require the church to remove any priest who is found to have sexually abused a minor, including reformed and repentant clerics who engaged in a single act of molestation decades ago. But the process to evaluate an accused priest is not spelled out, leaving each archdiocese to decide for itself.
The San Francisco archdiocese’s efforts have brought criticism from some outside the church, who say officials are being too lenient toward accused priests and should publicly denounce them. Some church officials counter that the archdiocese is doing the best it can with a national policy that they say could leave reputations unfairly ruined.
“It has condemned a lot of priests right off the bat,” said the Rev. Gerald Coleman, president of the archdiocese’s St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park and a church expert on the issue of sexual abuse among the clergy.
“As soon as you are suspended, there’s a tendency on a lot of our parts to think it must be true,” Coleman said.
Those who advocate for victims of sexual molestation say preventing further abuse, by suspending priests, must override the risk that an accusation may be unfounded.
“Fundamentally, a choice has to made in many of these cases, between the feelings of one grown-up versus the potential safety — I mean physical safety,
emotional safety and spiritual safety — of possibly dozens of kids,” said David Clohessy of the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, an organization based in Chicago.
“What is easier to repair — the shattered lives of molested kids or the reputation of an adult, who already holds an exalted position?” he said.
The priests being investigated under the new policy include some prominent figures in the archdiocese.
Among them, the archdiocese acknowledges, is a longtime media voice of the church, the priest in charge of the landmark St. Mary’s Cathedral and a retired priest who long served as chaplain of the San Francisco 49ers and used to run the Catholic Youth Organization.
The lay panel of experts reviewing the complaints for the church includes a retired police detective, a retired judge and two clinical child psychologists.
Archbishop William Levada opted to evaluate accusations against his priests on a case-by-case basis.
Levada has used various means to relieve priests of their duties. In some cases, church officials said, Levada has allowed the accused to retire quietly or take a personal leave rather than immediately suspending them outright.
“I give great credit to Archbishop Levada,” Coleman said. “He is doing what he has to do at the same time he is looking at each individual case, trying to discover what are the details, what are the circumstances.”
Victims’ advocates counter that the archdiocese is running the risk of considering “irrelevant” factors like the age of the priests involved or age of the allegations in deciding how to act. They say it is wrong to let priests leave without formally suspending them and notifying their congregations.
“It’s immoral,” said Clohessy of SNAP. “It’s not quite as bad as saying to a priest, ‘You are under suspicion, you may want to leave the country.’ . . . It’s basically akin to dodging your pastoral and, I would argue, your civic obligations.”
Clohessy said police and prosecutors have to judge the cases. Otherwise, he said, “you have to rely on the very subjective, untrained opinions of old, celibate white men.”
One priest allowed to retire under Levada’s policy is the Rev. Miles O’Brien Riley, who had a radio ministry starting in 1968 and later appeared on the “God Squad” TV program. He acted as a spokesman for the church for a long time.
Riley was accused by a female parishioner of having consensual contact short of sex with her about 30 years ago, starting when she was 16. The church had reviewed the allegations, which were lodged in the 1990s.
Even though the case was closed, the archdiocese turned over the woman’s complaint to the district attorney’s office, Riley’s attorney said.
Riley, 64, has written many books, produced films and written and directed musical comedies, as well as hosting 1,500 television and 4,000 radio programs.
He is listed in “Who’s Who in Religion in the United States” and “Who’s Who in America.”
His attorney, Gil Eisenberg, said Riley had done nothing wrong. “He denies these accusations of some sexual impropriety, which are in the neighborhood of 30 years old,” Eisenberg said.
Another prominent figure leaving his post is Monsignor John O’Connor, 68, who had overseen the landmark St. Mary’s Cathedral and its 1,000-member congregation for five years.
Authorities say O’Connor is named in a complaint to the church involving alleged improper contact with a boy. The alleged incident dates back more than 30 years, but the complaint was lodged recently.
“For a while now, I have known that I will be going on a leave of absence,” O’Connor told St. Mary’s congregation on Aug. 18, without elaborating. “Archbishop Levada has approved this leave of absence for me for health and personal reasons.”
O’Connor’s attorney, Jim Collins, said, “He didn’t do anything wrong,” and added that “nobody has been criminally charged, nobody has been convicted of anything.”
Collins represents two other priests being investigated by the archdiocese and prosecutors in alleged molestation cases — Monsignor John Heaney, suspended from his job as a San Francisco Police Department chaplain, and Peter Armstrong, a retired monsignor of St. Pius in Redwood City and chaplain of the 49ers. Armstrong was the subject of a complaint within the last decade involving a teenage boy in Marin, authorities said.
Collins said all the priests he represents are innocent.
“Some really fine human beings are having their reputations damaged after giving their lives to helping people and taking care of other people,” Collins said.
Other attorneys for the accused priests agreed that the policy taken by Levada is a violation of their clients’ rights.
“We think it’s a violation of due process, of everything that is American,” said attorney Joseph O’Sullivan, who represents the Rev. Daniel Carter, who was suspended from the church on Aug. 8 while a female parishioner’s allegations dating back about 25 years are investigated. The parishioner recently filed a civil lawsuit against Carter and the archdiocese.
Carter, 51, who was pastor at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Belmont, is expected to file a countersuit against his accuser. The woman says in her lawsuit that Carter molested her when she was a student at Notre Dame des Victoires elementary school in the late 1970s.
“These groups are capitalizing on this — they go to the archbishop, the priest gets removed, and they are halfway home in their lawsuit,” O’Sullivan said.
“We think it’s terrible. The inference is that it’s punitive in nature, they did something wrong,” he said. “Even though someone made an allegation, the allegation is not investigated” before the church acts.
One priest who left the church after molestation allegations were lodged, but later was brought back on limited duty, is now subject to suspension with pay while a new investigation is under way.
The church recently suspended the Rev. Henry Trainor, 55, formerly of St. Brendan’s and who served as chaplain at Laguna Honda Hospital, church officials say.
Trainor left his ministry on his own accord amid earlier allegations of abuse. He was brought back two years ago by Levada but was suspended after prosecutors were given the information about the allegations. Some of the accusations are about a decade old. Trainor could not be reached for comment.
Another priest, Monsignor Charles Durkin, 72, retired from Star of the Sea in San Francisco in April, church officials say. That was a month after the San Francisco district attorney’s office requested church records dating back 75 years related to allegations of abuse.
Durkin was the subject of a recent child molestation complaint stemming from conduct that allegedly occurred more than 30 years ago, authorities say.
“He is a well-known, well-loved man at Star of the Sea. This is wrong,” said attorney O’Sullivan, speaking on Durkin’s behalf.
Heaney, who had served as senior San Francisco police chaplain, was suspended Aug. 11. Two brothers have told authorities that Heaney molested them 40 years ago. The case came to light after one of the brothers told his story to a therapist, who alerted authorities. Heaney insists he is innocent, attorney Collins says.
Maurice Healy, the archdiocese spokesman, said the church has to balance the due process rights of priests with interests of law enforcement and the public in implementing the reforms approved by the nation’s bishops.
“We’re trying to do the right thing in cooperating recently, internally and externally,” Healy said. “Internally, we have a major responsibility (under the reforms). But this is uncharted territory. Everything is not tied up perfectly neat.”
Coleman said local priests who have already confessed their sins and have been allowed back into the church now face a new investigation and possible removal from the church.
“That is why I think this is so terribly unfair,” Coleman said. “It’s unjust — it doesn’t allow a priest his right of due process.”
Larry Drivon, a Stockton attorney who has handled cases filed by more than 100 people who say they have been molested by priests, including the suit against Carter, said suspension is just the first step of due process.
“If you go out and arrest somebody for murder, is that a violation of due process?” Drivon said. “It may be, if you have absolutely no credible information of any kind. But the arrest, the charging and the investigation, the preliminary hearing and the trial are all part of due process.”