Confidential diocesan records show church leaders repeatedly
allowed known pedophiles to return to ministry. Victims say their
lives were altered permanently.
By RACHANEE SRISAVASDI, ANDREW GALVIN, TONY SAAVEDRA and CHRIS
The Orange County Register
Wednesday, May 18, 2005
Diocese of Orange leaders enabled the sexual abuse of Catholic
children by accepting or keeping known pedophiles in parish work,
by ignoring warnings about abusive priests and by misleading parishioners,
a review of church records shows.
Fifteen once-sealed personnel files, made public Tuesdayas part
of a record $100 million settlement of child sexual-abuse cases,
provide a window into the minds of men of the cloth in Orange County
from the 1960s to 1990s. A judge ruled the diocese must release
other secret documents, including psychological reports and correspondence
between church leaders, within a week.
The details of many of the cases have been revealed in lawsuits
and previous news stories: boys sodomized by priests they trusted;
a high school girl impregnated and given a sexually transmitted
But other cases are new: A man who alleges he was molested for
three years by a priest who later died of AIDS. That man received
the highest settlement of any of the 90 victims: $3.7 million.
The files also reveal the extent to which diocesan bishops, chancellors
and other church leaders routinely forgave priests for abusing children,
paid for counseling, then welcomed them back to pastoral work -
sometimes two or three times.
Former diocesan leaders have apologized for keeping accused clergy
in ministry, saying they believed at the time they were doing the
right thing. But in a news conference Tuesday, Orange Bishop Tod
Brown acknowledged that those explanations were insufficient.
"The information contained in these documents is a painful
testimony to the abuse suffered by the victims and the inadequate
and failed responses on the part of the diocese in some cases in
these years," Brown said.
"No amount of explanation about the past can stand in the
light of what we now know about the sexual abuse of minors, nor
can it assuage the pain inflicted on them and their families. It
was wrong. Now, we must do all we can to heal."
The thousands of pages of confidential church records were a crucial
component of the January settlement with 90 individuals who say
they were abused by 45 priests, nuns, lay ministers, lay teachers,
a brother and a school caretaker. The records include letters, memos
and handwritten notes that detail church leaders' knowledge and
discussions with the priests who served under them.
The diocese initially agreed not to oppose release of records it
had revealed during settlement negotiations. But in the past week,
the diocese began to raise a series of legal objections that would
have scaled back the number of documents released.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Peter D. Lichtman ruled Tuesday
that the diocese cannot scale back its document release and ordered
the diocese to go even further, releasing psychological reports
and letters between church leaders that it previously argued were
confidential under privilege laws.
Five priests and three lay people had objected to the release of
their own files, citing privacy rights, and Lichtman ruled Tuesday
that he did not have the authority to release them. He left the
door open for plaintiff's attorneys to appeal that ruling.
Sex offenses no bar to parish work
The files show that diocesan officials knew that at least three
priests they accepted to work in Orange County had previously been
in trouble for sexual abuse of children in other dioceses.
Take the case of the Rev. Siegfried Widera.
Diocese officials have said they knew Widera had "a moral
problem having to do with a boy in school" before he came to
Orange County in 1976.
But the records released on Tuesday show, for the first time, that
church leaders knew much more than that.
Widera's file shows he was twice accused of abusing boys in Milwaukeeand
criminally convicted in 1973 of molestation. He was barred from
working in Wisconsin parishes.
When he came to visit his brother in Costa Mesa in 1976, the then-Archbishop
of Milwaukee, William Cousins, called Bishop William Johnson and
suggested that Widera might work in Orange County.
In a December 1976 letter to Diocese of Orange Chancellor Michael
Driscoll, Cousins wrote of Widera's "moral problem" and
said that the priest had a second such incident. He added "there
would seem to be no great risk in allowing (Widera) to return to
Driscoll met Widera the following month and accepted him on the
spot. Widera's first assignment was St. Pius V in Buena Park.
That same year, Widera began abusing Orange County boys, some as
young as 9, according to lawsuits later filed in Orange County.
In 1985, Driscoll was told that someone witnessed Widera molest
four or five boys in a swimming pool.
Two months later, in September 1985, Driscoll received a call from
a woman in Yorba Linda who said her son had been touched inappropriately
when Widera tucked him into bed.
The diocese removed Widera and sent him to a treatment facility
in New Mexico.
As reports of abuse by Widera began to pile up at Marywood, the
diocesan headquarters, Widera disappeared. In May 2002, prosecutors
in Wisconsin filed nine counts of child molestation against him.
Five months later, Orange County prosecutors filed 33 counts.
In May 2003, police found Widera in Mexico. While being questioned
by Mexican police, he fell to his death from the third-floor balcony
of a Mazatlan hotel.
This year, the diocese paid $17.7 million to nine men who alleged
they were abused by Widera.
Earlier this year, one of Widera's victims, David Guerrero, told
the Register how his life had been derailed by the years of abuse
that began when he was 9.
"I needed help, and no one was there to help me," Guerrero
Driscoll, who is now the Bishop of Boise, declined to be interviewed
for this story.
But earlier this month, he posted a lengthy apology on his diocesan
"I am ashamed that this happened," Driscoll wrote. "It
is hard for me to understand today how we could not have seen what
was happening to the children."
Second and third chances
Church leaders believed that abusive priests could be cured through
treatment, and often ignored warnings from parishioners that suggested
a different truth, the records show.
Like Widera, the Rev. Eleuterio Ramos had already been in trouble
before coming to Orange County - a lawsuit claims he molested an
8-year- old boy at Resurrection Church in East Los Angeles.
Documents from his personnel files show that the Archdiocese of
Los Angeles sent him for psychological treatment - "this care
was suggested by the district attorney." He was then sent to
Orange County, where he became a parish priest at Immaculate Heart
of Mary in Santa Ana.
By late 1979, mothers and teachers were complaining to Bishop Johnson
about Ramos' behavior.
Driscoll's notes from a phone conversation sketch the incident:
"Boys taken to rectory ... some drinking ..."
Lawsuits settled by the church are more explicit: Ramos was accused
of taking boys to drive-in movies and motels, giving them alcohol
and pornography, then orally copulating them.
Diocese officials sent Ramos to Maryland for treatment in December
In April 1980, Bishop William R. Johnson revealed his own feelings
about Ramos in a letter to the director of the treatment center.
Johnson called Ramos "a fine priest, zealous and generous hearted.
... He will be returning to the Diocese early next month and we
look forward to having him back with us," Johnson wrote.
According to lawsuits, Ramos would continue to abuse boys for the
next five years, in one case allowing other men to join in the abuse
in a Mexican hotel room.
Finally, a boy told his parents.
Bishop Johnson arranged for Ramos to be placed at a church in Mexico.
The Diocese continued to give Ramos a monthly stipend of $500 until
1992, records show.
Parishioners who had been warning Driscoll and Johnson about Ramos
for years remained angry at how long it took for Ramos to be removed.
"The Diocese took their time in doing it. ... The Bishop or
Msgr. Driscoll (told) me they needed four people to corroborate
our statements," wrote a woman whose name was blacked out.
Ramos eventually confessed to police that he molested more than
He died in 2003.
The diocese reached a secret settlement with two people in 1993
and 1994. Earlier this year, it settled with 11 more - for $16.6
Church leaders repeatedly downplayed complaints logged against
some priests, the records show. The files contradict public statements
made by the diocese about at least five accused abusers.
In the case of the Rev. Michael Pecharich, the founding pastor
of San Francisco Solano Church in Rancho Santa Margarita, documents
released Tuesday indicate the diocese received multiple complaints
of inappropriate behavior by Pecharich before he was removed from
ministry three years ago.
The diocese learned in 1996 that Pecharich had zipped himself into
a sleeping bag with a boy on a 1984 camping trip and then fondled
In March 2002, Brown announced the implementation of a "zero-tolerance
policy" against known molesters.
"Although there have been no further instances of misconduct,
nor any new accusations, the Diocese has taken the position that
any priest who was ever involved in this kind of behavior cannot
serve in ministry," Brown said.
But the records released Tuesday show that the diocese had numerous
other reports of behavior by Pecharich that left onlookers "scandalized,"
in the words of one parent.
The records show Msgr. John Urell met with Pecharich about one
interaction in August 1995, in which a boy complained about the
"He had no intentions in anything he had done ... he is more
aware now about how actions are perceived; and how others can 'experience'
something in a different way than it was intended," Urell wrote.
In a separate incident, one young man alleged Pecharich hugged
and kissed him on the cheek during counseling sessions while Pecharich
was a pastor at San Antonio de Padua Catholic Church in Anaheim
"It is true he did not molest me, but his behavior with me
was, to say the least, inappropriate. He crossed sexual boundaries,
and that was wrong," the youth wrote.
While Pecharich was at San Francisco Solano, the diocese also received
complaints that Pecharich "put his hands in the back pocket
of a young boy and stood there talking to him," according to
a March 1996 letter to Bishop Norm McFarland.
"He approached our son and pulled hair off his leg and told
him to put it on his chest," the parent wrote. "We won't
begin to speculate what motivates Father Michael's inappropriate
conduct. ... Our children were scandalized and shocked a priest
would behave in such a manner."
These complaints didn't seem to affect Pecharich's standing. Bishop
Brown appointed Pecharich in 2000 to the Committee for the Removal
of a Pastor.
Brown said Tuesday that he did not see Pecharich's file before
2002, the year Pecharich was removed.
After Pecharich's removal, two other people came forward and said
they were molested by Pecharich. One parishioner wrote to ask why
Pecharich was allowed to remain as long as he was.
"We see that Mr. Pecharich is gone. What is clearly missing
is an explanation for why he was ever allowed to come into contact
with our children when his background and sickness were known to
the diocese," a parishioner wrote Brown. "Who made such
decisions? Moreover, if the men who allowed Mr. Pecharich to be
our priest are still empowered in the Diocese, how can we truly
be certain that such breaches of trust will not again take place?"
Pecharich could not be reached for comment.
Bishop Brown reiterated Tuesday that the diocese has changed the
way it handles reports of sexual abuse.
"These stories are about what was wrong then. The release
of these documents is about getting it right now," he said.