So. CA clergy sex abuse scandal drags on, with no end in sight
By Tom Kisken - VenturaCountyStar.com
December 7, 2003
Victims are accusing retired and removed Southern California priests
of molesting them as children in several hundred lawsuits filed
over the past year. Police have a warrant out for a former cleric
charged with abusing two boys in Santa Paula more than 10 years
And yet two years after allegations of pedophile priests being
transferred from parish to parish first rocked the Catholic church,
the scandal seems like old news to some people.
Most of the names and many of accusations have been heard before.
Some Catholics point to existing and reinforced policies for protecting
children, also citing the accused priests forced out of ministry
as proof the crises have been addressed.
"We think it happened. We think it's regrettable. We're carrying
on," said Trudy Hayes, organist at Santa Clara Church in Oxnard,
one of several Ventura County parishes that have been hit by allegations.
"We're just going on."
The reaction makes Manny Vega of Oxnard think of how the shock
that greeted the first battles in Iraq diminished as the casualties
continued. No matter how tragic an event, people get used to it.
"I guess we all get desensitized. It's part of being human,"
Vega said. He is suing the Rev. Fidencio Silva for allegedly molesting
him more than 20 years ago when he was an altar boy at Our Lady
of Guadalupe Church in Oxnard.
No resolution near
Last December, victims talked wistfully about how their cases could
be close to resolution in a year. That hasn't happened. Some observers
don't expect substantial movement until after Dec. 31, the deadline
of a one-year state law that allowed people to file lawsuits even
if the statute of limitations had expired.
A lawyer for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles said he has been told
that as many as 400 cases against former priests and the archdiocese
will have been filed by the end of the year.
Virtually all of Southern California's lawsuits are being placed
in a court-mandated mediation process. Lawyers for plaintiffs and
defendants are exchanging records and giving mixed reviews of the
other side's willingness to cooperate. In the cases where mediation
doesn't work, one attorney predicted trials could begin late in
On the criminal side, Santa Paula police are searching for a former
priest who allegedly molested two boys from 1988 to 1993. Charges
against Carlos Rene Rodriguez, 48, were filed in Ventura County
Superior Court on July 31, along with an arrest warrant.
Neither police nor prosecutors will comment on the case except
to say the search is continuing. According to the warrant request,
the alleged Santa Paula victims are brothers whose parents met Rodriguez
through his work with a marriage encounter group.
Rodriguez, then a member of the Vincentian Fathers order, served
at a retreat in Santa Barbara for about five years before leaving
the priesthood in 1993. He was charged more than a year ago with
a molestation in Los Angeles in the 1980s. The case was dropped
after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against a state law that allowed
prosecutors to pursue allegations of decades-old molestation.
Ventura County prosecutors assert the ruling still allows them
to pursue allegations from 1988 on, though some observers expect
the Rodriguez timetable will be argued in court.
Don Steier, a Los Angeles lawyer working with the former priest
on civil litigation, said he didn't know where his client was and
hadn't been told police were looking for him.
From criminal to civil courts
If momentum in the scandal has slowed over the past year, many
people point to the Supreme Court ruling as the reason. Courts throughout
the state were forced to toss out cases against former priests,
as well as many others accused and convicted of molestation. In
Southern California, charges were dropped against several men who
once served at parishes or ministries in Ventura County, including
Michael Wempe, George Miller, Carl Sutphin, George Neville Rucker
and Fidencio Silva.
Only Wempe has been arrested again. The former priest served at
several parishes in and around Ventura County from 1969 to 1987.
He is now accused of molestation during the 1990s, when he was serving
as a chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He
pleaded not guilty in Los Angeles Superior Court and is awaiting
a preliminary hearing.
But if criminal courts once seemed to be the stage on which the
clergy abuse story would be told in California, that burden has
shifted. National surveys to be released in January and February
are expected to give information on whether dioceses have effectively
protected children, as well as detailing the number of clergy sex
abuse accusations over the past 50 years and the money paid out
Some lawyers and victims think the heart of the scandal will be
exposed through Archdiocese of Los Angeles personnel records. Judges
are still in the process of ruling exactly what information will
be given to plaintiffs suing priests and the archdiocese.
J. Michael Hennigan, a lawyer with the archdiocese, said personnel
files will never be totally bared in public. But he predicted information
relevant to the scandal will be released, much of it within the
next six months.
He said the files won't show that church leaders tried to hide
molestation by transferring accused priests from one parish to another.
What will records show?
Such a conspiracy is exactly what Lee Bashforth thinks the records
would prove, though he worries some of the most telling documents
may be removed by archdiocese officials.
"I think it will prove ... that there has been a Vatican-endorsed
policy of coverup and obstruction of justice," said Bashforth,
who grew up in the Conejo Valley and alleges he was molested by
Tim Hale, a Santa Barbara lawyer who represents several alleged
victims who have filed lawsuits, doesn't expect the church to release
all its records. But he thinks the scandal will be revealed when
archdiocese leaders give depositions in the cases that can't be
"They will really have their feet to the fire," he said,
predicting depositions will be taken one day and released to the
public the next. "The lies are going to be exposed or the horrible
truths will be exposed."
For now, Hale and other lawyers are focused on meeting the Dec.
31 deadline for filing lawsuits and encouraging abuse victims to
State Sen. Joe Dunn, D-Santa Ana, said he will decide early next
year whether to ask fellow legislators to extend the moratorium
on the statute of limitations. Dunn, a lawyer who has represented
clergy abuse victims, is certain the scandal will continue to unfold
across the world.
"I believe we're only at the tip of the iceberg," he
In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, officials say what they've been
saying for two years: Almost all of the allegations involve incidents
from before 1985. Policies that came in the late 1980s and have
since been strengthened are effective.
Victims and their attorneys don't believe the scandal has altered
the church. But Hennigan said the change is forever.
"We're embarrassed by this," he said. "We're ashamed
of it. We want it to never reoccur."