Vatican defrocks priest who scolded Oakland Diocese over sex abuse
Tim Stier figured it was only a matter of time. Since 2005 he’s refused parish assignments as an Oakland Diocese priest over its handling of clerical sex abuse claims and spent more than a decade outside its cathedral on Sundays calling for church accountability and justice for the victims.
He had no plans to end his self-imposed exile and resume work as a parish priest. But when the Vatican finally came for his collar a few months ago, removing him from the Roman Catholic priesthood, Stier said it still felt like a blow.
“It hit me harder than I’d expected,” said Stier, 73, whose removal was disclosed this week. “I felt sad and angry. If I’d been raping kids, I wouldn’t be thrown out of the club.”
The Diocese of Oakland said in a statement Friday only that “we wish Mr. Stier all the best in this new chapter of his life.”
But Stier, as he has been for the last 17 years, remains unsparing in his criticism of the diocese over the scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic church locally and around the world since it first came to light in the 1980s and 1990s through criminal prosecutions of priests and lawsuits.
The scandal gained wider attention after a 2002 Boston Globe expose that led to criminal prosecutions of five priests, won a Pulitzer Prize and was retold in the Academy Award-winning 2015 film “Spotlight.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002 acknowledged the problem, calling for the protection of children and young people and zero tolerance for sexual abuse.
But critics have since accused church leaders around the country of failing to fully account for their role in enabling abuse. A 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report found more than 300 priests had abused more than 1,000 kids in six of the state’s eight Catholic dioceses. The report found church leaders “brushed aside” victims’ claims and “preferred to protect the abusers and their institution above all” by “concealing the truth.”
The report prompted similar probes in other states, including California, where it remains ongoing. It also led many dioceses, including Oakland and San Jose, to publish or expand their lists of credibly accused clergy.
Still, critics, including SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, and Stier, who is close with that group’s leaders, have said the dioceses’ disclosures were incomplete and failed to address bishops’ roles in perpetuating the abuse.
In his May 31 farewell letter to some 60 Oakland Diocese priests, Stier wrote of his dismay that Oakland Bishop Michael C. Barber hasn’t held retired Bishop emeritus John S. Cummins accountable for his role in allegedly enabling the abuse by credibly accused priests the diocese has named.
Stier’s letter, which he said only one priest responded to, said Cummins, bishop from 1977 to 2003, failed to prevent abuse by Vincent Breen, Don Broderson, James Clark, George Francis, Robert Ponciroli, Gary Tollner and Stephen Kiesle. All eventually were taken out of ministry and Broderson, Kiesle and Ponciroli were removed from the priesthood. Only Kiesle is still alive.
The diocese did not comment on Stier’s accusations, and Cummins, 93, could not be reached.
Stier, whom Cummins ordained in 1978, had served at St. Bede in Hayward under Francis, who died in 1998 and was accused of sexually abusing at least six kids. The diocese paid a $3 million settlement in 2004 to one of Francis’ victims, whose father Stier knew.
Stier later served at St. John Vianney in Walnut Creek, St. Raymond in Dublin and finally for 12 years at Corpus Christi in Fremont. He wasn’t shy there about confronting the sex abuse scandal, at one point removing the name of Clark, accused of abuse from 1971 to 1973 and who died in 1989, from the parish hall.
But Stier grew increasingly frustrated by what he felt was a church that was lowering its standards for priests to fill vacancies while refusing to reconsider policies and teachings he believes contribute to the problem – priestly celibacy, refusal to ordain women and opposition to homosexuality.
The final straw, Stier said, was a 2004 meeting with Dan McNevin, a former altar boy who said he’d been sexually abused by Clark. He later received part of a $56.4 million settlement with 56 accusers and is now SNAP’s treasurer. After a sabbatical, Stier told then-bishop Allen H. Vigneron in 2005 that he could no longer serve as a parish priest.
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Stier now lives in a Walnut Creek retirement community, on income from a book, Social Security and his priest pension. Barber, he said, has never responded to his protests or letters.
Two years ago, he said he received a notice from the diocese that the bishop wanted to remove him from the priesthood, in a process known as laicization. He refused to cooperate, and the diocese told him in May that the Vatican had laicized him March 19.
SNAP said in response that “when many in Oakland were silent about this ongoing problem, Tim Stier chose not to be. In response, he has been punished.”
Stier said that as a “Catholic through and through” he couldn’t bring himself to join another denomination and that his defrocking hasn’t shaken his faith.
“I believe in God, I pray daily, I read the scriptures,” Stier said.
It also won’t keep him quiet.
“The main focus for me here is the suffering of the victims,” Stier said. “They keep me going.”