In Los Angeles, Trail of Abuse Leads to Seminary
St. John's in Camarillo fielded a disproportionate
number of alleged molesters, records show, in some cases up to a
third of the graduating class.
By Paul Pringle - LA Times Staff Writer
November 17, 2005
Any examination of the sexual abuse crisis afflicting the Roman
Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles leads inevitably to a bell-towered
campus in the rolling hills of Camarillo: St. John's Seminary.
The 66-year-old institution has trained hundreds of clerics for
the archdiocese and smaller jurisdictions across Southern California
and beyond. It is the alma mater of Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, Diocese
of Orange Bishop Tod Brown and other prominent prelates. Former
San Francisco Archbishop William Levada, now the Vatican's chief
enforcer of doctrine, taught at the school.
But St. John's, the only seminary operated by the archdiocese,
also has produced a disproportionate number of alleged sexual abusers
as it prepared men for a life of ministry and celibacy, records
About 10% of St. John's graduates reported to have been ordained
in the Los Angeles Archdiocese since 1950 65 of roughly 625
have be been accused of molesting minors, according to a
review of ordination announcements, lawsuits, published reports
and the archdiocese's 2004 list of alleged abusers. In two classes
1966 and 1972 a third of the ge graduates were later
accused of molestation.
The St. John's figures are much higher than the nationwide rate
of alleged molesters in the American priesthood, as calculated by
a church-commissioned survey. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice
study found that 4% of priests and deacons between 1950 and 2002
have been accused of abuse.
"The numbers get scary," said Patrick Wall, a former
monk who works for an Orange County law firm that represents alleged
abuse victims suing the church, including about 100 who have accused
St. John's graduates. "I don't think it's coincidental."
Archdiocese officials deny that the seminary was in any way responsible.
Spokesman Tod Tamberg blamed intense publicity over sexual abuse
in the church for the higher rate of accusations involving St. John's
graduates, and noted that a California law temporarily lifting the
statute of limitations for molestation lawsuits brought a flood
of allegations against Los Angeles priests.
But J. Michael Hennigan, a lawyer for the archdiocese, conceded
that exaggerated claims alone cannot account for the large numbers
of alleged abusers in some graduating classes.
"There were a couple of years at that seminary where lightning
struck," Hennigan said. "I doubt we'll ever figure out
Several former students recall a licentious atmosphere at St. John's
that might have accommodated a range of sexual behavior, especially
in the years before the 1990s.
They say that many classmates routinely broke their celibacy vows,
that emotionally troubled students were allowed to drift though
the seminary, and that administrators either were ignorant about
sex on campus or turned a blind eye to it.
Some told of seminarians having sex in St. John's dormitories,
bathrooms and orange groves.
"There was an awful lot that was shocking," said Jaime
Romo, who lost his passion for the priesthood after three years
at St. John's in the early 1980s. Now an education professor at
the University of San Diego, a Catholic school, Romo has sued the
Los Angeles Archdiocese, accusing the late priest Leland Boyer of
molesting him as a teenager.
He remembered a small group of students who dressed in nuns' clothes
during his time at St. John's, and others who were "full-blown
alcoholics." He said the faculty avoided any talk of sex: "There
was no discussion of celibacy."
A number of active priests who attended St. John's said they had
never witnessed sexual activity at the seminary, and believed the
administration would not have tolerated it. "Could guys have
carried on a secret life? Sure," said Leon Hutton, a St. John's
history teacher who graduated in 1980. "But it certainly wouldn't
have been condoned."
The John Jay survey determined that the quarter-century from 1960
through 1984 was particularly troublesome for alleged abuse by clerics
nationwide. At St. John's, about 15% of priests who graduated during
that period and served in the Los Angeles Archdiocese were accused
of sexual abuse, records show.
Some of the allegations have resulted in criminal convictions or
civil settlements. Most are unresolved. The accusations lodged in
civil complaints have not been formally denied because the suits
are the subject of a court mediation, Hennigan said.
Typically, the suits focus on incidents that allegedly occurred
after a priest left the seminary. But in a 2003 suit, Esther Miller
alleges that a seminarian sexually abused her at St. John's in the
Miller, now a human resources manager, accuses former priest Michael
Nocita of molesting her when she was 16 and 17 while he was a deacon
seminarian assigned to her family's parish in Van Nuys.
The suit, which names the archdiocese rather than Nocita as a defendant,
also alleges that St. John's then-rector, John Grindel, once saw
Nocita embracing her in his dorm room but did not ask why she was
"He just closed the door," said Miller, who says that
Nocita molested her in the dorm and the orange groves.
Attempts to reach Nocita and Grindel for comment were unsuccessful.
They have not responded formally to the lawsuits because of the
mediation process, Hennigan said.
Other suits allege that a St. John's student molested three sisters
â€ ages 6 to 15 while visiting their home
as part of a "field passtoral education" program in the
early 1980s. The lawsuits do not identify the student.
Wayne Yehling, a Tucson attorney who received a philosophy degree
from St. John's now-closed undergraduate college in 1982, said most
of his classmates had been committed to celibacy, but "there
was a great deal of sexual activity among students. I saw it, and
yes, I participated in it." Yehling said he had a sexual relationship
with another student for most of his three years at St. John's.
"It was like shooting fish in a barrel to seduce somebody
there," he said of the college, a gateway to the graduate theology
school. "You learned to hide what you do."
Yehling and others noted that engaging in consensual sex at the
seminary and molesting minors were hugely different things, and
said no link between them should be inferred.
They also said, however, that St. John's administrators and teachers
had appeared so oblivious to sex on campus that it would have been
possible for students who exhibited sexually abusive behavior to
go unchecked while at the school.
Fred Berlin, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Johns
Hopkins School of Medicine, said if a "subculture of permissiveness"
had taken hold at St. John's, students prone to molestation might
have found it easier to succumb to their desires.
"We often see that people, when they get into these group
situations, will sometimes behave in ways they might not otherwise
behave," said Berlin, an expert on sexual disorders.
Berlin said he knew of cases in which young men tormented by their
sexual urges entered seminaries in the hope that a celibacy vow
would still their impulses.
"When they get there," he said, "it's a very different
Robert Greene, who left St John's undergraduate college in 1972
after a year, said the vast majority of students took their vocation
seriously. "But many people seemed almost preadolescent
They were pretty much shippedd through the system in this kind of
numb state." He said the seminary "did a disservice by
not emphasizing spiritual and psychological development."
Greene, a part-time Anglican minister who works in aerospace finance,
said he quit the seminary because Robert Manning, who was serving
as a visiting cleric at Greene's Redondo Beach parish, had been
"He would pick me up at St. John's and take me home,"
said Greene, who has sued the church, alleging that Manning began
to abuse him in high school.
Archdiocese officials have labeled Manning a "bogus priest,"
saying they cannot confirm that he was ordained. He is not a defendant
in the suit and could not be reached for comment.
Luis Godinez, who briefly attended St. John's in the late 1980s,
said he left because he was offended by the promiscuity on campus.
He said he often could not use his dorm bathroom at night because
it was occupied by men having sex.
In 2003, Godinez sued the church, alleging that Stockton priest
Fernando Villalobos, who died in 1985, had molested him as a boy.
The suit is pending.
During the 1970s and '80s, St. John's sometimes played host to
a Tucson priest, Robert Trupia, who brought young men interested
in becoming priests to the seminary as part of his "Come and
See" program, according to court documents.
Arizona authorities arrested Trupia on child molestation charges
in 2000, but dropped the case because of the statute of limitations.
In 2002, the church paid a multimillion-dollar settlement to nine
former altar boys and another alleged victim who accused Trupia
and three other Arizona priests of molestation.
The mother of one boy who was a witness in the case wrote to church
officials that her son had an "especially painful memory"
of spending two nights at St. John's with Trupia, and waking to
find the priest sitting on the child's bed.
"The bedcovers were pulled down but [he] doesn't know or remember
if Trupia touched him while he slept," the mother wrote. "He
does know that the door to his room was locked
. The door wasn't
locked when he went to bed.""
Hennigan said the archdiocese found that Trupia had been "discouraged
from further visits to St. John's," but there was no record
of the reason. "We heard he was banned," he said.
Msgr. James Gehl, who was at St. John's for eight years ending
in 1974, first at the undergraduate college and then in the theology
school, said he saw nothing of the sexually charged environment
others describe. "I'm not saying there weren't [instances of
sexual activity], but I never heard of one," he said. "Sometimes
people were dismissed, and we were never given the reason."
Gehl, now pastor at St. Bede the Venerable in La CaÃ±ada
Flintridge, said it "blew me away" to learn of abuse allegations
against a former classmate and a second St. John's graduate with
whom Gehl shared a church residence for three years in Palmdale.
"I never would have guessed," he said.
Back then, he said, there was little if any psychological vetting
of students: "When I went to the seminary college, I just went
from 12th grade to 13th grade. I don't remember being interviewed
in any psychological way."
"We were all ignorant," said the Rev. Msgr. Helmut Hefner,
a 1969 St. John's graduate who is rector of the seminary. "I
went to school with people who subsequently became abusers. I couldn't
tell. There was no hint."
Hefner said a reluctance by seminaries to aggressively address
sexual matters in the 1960s and '70s might have inadvertently opened
the door to a few young men with abusive tendencies. "Sexual
issues were taboo," he said.
Seminaries have since adopted tougher measures to weed out candidates
who might have a predilection for perversions, and Hefner says the
regimen of background checks, psychological tests and celibacy counseling
"It's gotten more sophisticated," he said. "We are
much more aware of the risk factors."
He sees a bright future for St. John's. Enrollment has been holding
steady at about 100, he said.
The archdiocese is selling 60 of St. John's 100 acres to developers,
with the proceeds to secure the seminary's endowment.
Like other seminaries, however, St. John's has been laboring to
reverse a decline in its output of priests, a trend that resulted
in the 2003 closure of the undergraduate school.
Its ordinations have lagged far behind the growth in the Los Angeles
Archdiocese, the nation's most populous with 5 million Catholics.
Today's student body, Hefner said, is about half foreign-born with
an average age of 34. He said any problems of immaturity, sexual
and otherwise, have disappeared.
"The scandals have only kind of encouraged people to work
harder at what we're about," Hefner said.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
The Los Angeles Archdiocese said it did not have a comprehensive
roster of St. John's graduates. It also declined to provide The
Times with access to the campus or to photographs of graduating
classes. For those reasons, The Times relied on ordination stories
published annually in the archdiocesan newspaper, the Tidings
an approach that church officials said would yieeld accurate results.
The stories listed the names of about 620 St. John's priests who
were ordained in the archdiocese since 1950. Several more graduates
were identified in legal documents and in interviews with church
officials and former St. John's students.
Some St. John's graduates were ordained into dioceses outside Los
Angeles. Repeated attempts to obtain a complete list of these graduates
were unsuccessful. Priests ordained into the Los Angeles Archdiocese
were recruited and sponsored for the seminary by the archdiocese.
All the names were checked against those in the archdiocese's 2004
report on alleged abusers, news accounts of molestation cases, and
in some instances, court documents and supporting materials.
From that process, The Times found 65 Los Angeles priests ordained
from St. John's since 1950 who have faced abuse allegations.