Story of Fr. Antonio Demonstrates that Abuse Thrives When Church Officials Stay Silent

An excellent piece of investigative journalism from KQED lays bare an intrinsically dangerous truth within religious institutions: abuse thrives when those in charge do not do their jobs. (A Spanish version of this story is available here.)

KQED followed the story of Fr. Jesús Antonio Castañeda Serna – known to his parishioners as Fr. Antonio – from the first instances of wrongdoing by this priest in Washington state, where he was first allowed off the hook, to the scene of his alleged crimes in Fresno, California, and then back down to where Fr. Serna continues to head a church despite criminal charges related to dozens of allegations of sexual abuse.

This story is a complex one, involving manipulation and deception by a man who was revered by his parishioners, and who used that reverence to prey on vulnerable men in a vulnerable population. Many of the men who were victimized by Fr. Serna were afraid to come forward due to cultural worries and the fear of reprisal by immigration authorities. But when breaking the story down to its most basic level, it is yet another example of church officials prioritizing their reputations over the protection of the vulnerable.

Ultimately, this case highlights the danger posed by priests who are quietly kicked out of one denomination only to go to work for another. Had Fr. Serna been reported to the police when accusations against him were first raised while he was working as a Roman Catholic priest in the Diocese of Yakima, then he likely would never have been able to get another job with another denomination in California. Yet rather than come clean about the allegations against him in Yakima, Catholic officials there sanitized the reason for his dismissal. It was only a year after Fr. Serna’s ordination into the Anglican church that church leaders in Yakima bothered to reveal the real reason for his dismissal.

This is yet another example of how a church’s failure to disclose the reasons why clerics are dismissed creates danger in other communities. As the AP reported last year, this is a nationwide trend, and we worry about how many other Fr. Serna’s there may be.

The simple fact is that the Diocese of Yakima endangered the public by not being clear with the Anglican church about the reason for Fr. Serna’s dismissal. The men that the clergyman later abused would likely have never met him in the first place had officials in Yakima been open and honest about his dismissal.

This story is a reminder that all allegations of abuse, sexual harassment, or inappropriate behavior should be made to police and prosecutors first, and church officials second. We hope that this story inspires others who were abused and who are staying silent out of fear of reprisal or being called a liar to come forward to law enforcement. Doing so can help prevent other innocent people from being abused.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is currently investigating cases of clergy abuse and has a website available for victims and witnesses to make confidential reports. We encourage anyone who may have seen, suffered, or suspected abuse at the hands of Fr. Serna or any other church staffer in the Fresno area to come forward and make a report, whether by using this online reporting form or by sending an email to ClergyAbuse@doj.ca.gov. We especially urge those who may be afraid of going to local police due to their immigration status to make a report to A.G. Becerra who has said he will take all complaints seriously regardless if the victim is undocumented.

CONTACT: Dan McNevin, SNAP Treasurer (dmcnevin@aol.com, 415-341-6417), Melanie Sakoda, SNAP Survivor Support Coordinator, (msakoda@snapnetwork.org, 925-708-6175), Zach Hiner, SNAP Executive Director (zhiner@snapnetwork.org, 517-974-9009)

(SNAP, the Survivors Network, has been providing support for victims of sexual abuse in institutional settings for 30 years. We have more than 25,000 survivors and supporters in our network. Our website is SNAPnetwork.org)


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