Apology Sought for Backing Priest
San Francisco police enrage victims' group
Jaxon Van Derbeken, Chronicle Staff Writer
Saturday, February 1, 2003
San Francisco -- A group representing people molested by Roman
Catholic priests is demanding the San Francisco police chief apologize
for his officers' public support of a department chaplain accused
of molesting a boy 40 years ago.
"Your job is to prevent crime and catch criminals," leaders
of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) wrote
to Chief Earl Sanders in a letter dated Friday, two days after a
deputy chief and dozens of officers appeared at a bail hearing for
Monsignor John Heaney.
"You can only do this if crime victims feel safe cooperating
with you," the SNAP leaders said. "That won't happen if
crime victims see your employees rallying behind accused child molesters."
Besides an apology, the group called for sensitivity training of
officers and discipline of any officer who appeared at Heaney's
arraignment Wednesday while on duty.
Sanders declined to comment through a department spokesman.
Heaney, senior chaplain to the Police Department for more than
three decades, has pleaded not guilty to eight felony counts accusing
him of molesting a boy for more than two years, starting when the
child was 7 years old in September 1961.
The molestations stopped around the time the boy turned 10, prosecutors
said, adding that the man's two brothers are corroborating witnesses.
The alleged victim is now 49 years old. Neither he nor his brothers
were identified in court filings.
Among those standing by the 75-year-old Heaney was Deputy Chief
Greg Suhr, who was in court Wednesday for the hearing at which Heaney's
bail was cut to $150,000 from $800,000. Others who have offered
their support to the defense are Assistant Chief Alex Fagan Sr.
and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
SNAP said Suhr's presence in court was "particularly upsetting.
. . . An individual in his role with his title and authority should
certainly have known better and shown better judgment."
Suhr stood by his decision to attend the hearing.
"Here is a 75-year-old man who has suffered a stroke and done
as much good as he has done," Suhr said. "I don't think
that it serves anybody to go past 'innocent until proven guilty'
"He has always, always shown up for the Police Department,
no matter the hour of the night," Suhr said. "To that
end, we need to wait and see what the judicial system determines."
At Wednesday's hearing in San Francisco Superior Court, Heaney's
attorney, Jim Collins, pointed to the crowd of about 100 former
and current officers, firefighters and other colleagues as vouching
for the retired priest's reliability and character.
Terrie Light, a local leader of SNAP, said Friday that police were
sending the wrong message to molestation victims.
"It's totally outrageous," she said. "There's many
of us, victims, counting on the Police Department and the district
attorney to put these bad guys in jail. Hearing all these comments
-- from people in very prestigious, powerful positions -- supporting
him, I felt this sense of overwhelming sadness."
Light said the Catholic Church has long harbored child molesters.
"But the police, their call is to the public safety and, it
seems, above all, the safety of children," Light said.
"It is one thing to . . . sit back and say, 'Wait and see,'
and personally not believe it," she said. "But to be allowed
to go public for the support. . . . What does that say to the public?
In my mind, it says, 'He is not guilty. We know him. We are going
to vouch for him. He's a good guy.' "
E-mail Jaxon Van Derbeken at firstname.lastname@example.org.
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle