Was a beloved Bay Area priest also a pedophile? Survivor hopes lawsuit will spark change

Was a beloved Bay Area priest also a pedophile? Survivor hopes lawsuit will spark change

Dec. 9, 2022Updated: Dec. 9, 2022 10:10 a.m.

On a chilly November morning, Derek Lewis sat on a bench in front of a haunted little white building, remembering.

The 34-year-old Hayward man’s psychologist says it’s good to come to this quiet spot in Contra Costa County to confront the past. The structure used to house the office and living area of the head priest at the church that was once next door. Inside the building, as well as inside the church, Lewis said, the priest sexually abused him repeatedly over two years starting when Lewis was about 8 years old, inflicting trauma that set his young life on a tortuous path.

Lewis looked away from the building, hiding tears, as he described what it was like inside: the old brown carpet, the musty smell, the portrait of Jesus looking on as the priest reached to touch him.

“An ugly place,” Lewis said.

After some 25 years of avoiding memories from Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in the small city of Brentwood, Lewis is taking what he describes as the next step in his recovery. He filed suit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland on Nov. 29, making use of a 2019 California law that extended the statute of limitations for victims of child sexual abuse to sue their abuser or abuser’s employer. The complaint is one in a flurry filed in recent months as the deadline to file new litigation approaches on Dec. 31.

Though Father John G. Garcia is dead and can’t face the allegations, Lewis said he suspects there are more victims and wants to empower them to come forward.

“Just because it’s a really hard thing to live with and stay quiet about,” he said.

The lawsuit marks the first time Garcia, a beloved and well-known figure, has been publicly accused of child abuse. Garcia, who was ordained in 1947 and retired in 2001 at the age of 81, worked at Immaculate Heart of Mary for 17 years. Before Brentwood, Garcia served at churches in San Pablo, Oakland, Byron, Oakley, Martinez and Hayward, according to a work history compiled by the Oakland chapter of the nonprofit Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.

Lewis’ lawsuit alleges Garcia molested and raped him dozens of times, inappropriately taking the boy into his residence “in full view of other priests” and church workers. The Catholic Church knew, or should have known, that Garcia was abusive, said Terry Gross, Lewis’ attorney.

The office manager and a deacon at Immaculate Heart of Mary, which has relocated two miles away, referred questions to the Diocese of Oakland.

Helen Osman, a spokesperson for the Oakland diocese, which has previously acknowledged credible child abuse accusations against dozens of priests who had worked in its region, said they couldn’t release personnel records and weren’t aware of any other allegations against Garcia.

Another lawsuit is in the works related to child sex abuse allegations against a late priest who is believed to be the same John G. Garcia, according to the plaintiff’s attorney, Michael Carney of Beverly Hills. Carney said the accusations are from 1974 at a parish in Oakland, where, according to the work history, the John G. Garcia who allegedly abused Lewis worked at the time.

Lewis’ filing is one of more than 1,000 clergy abuse suits expected in Northern California during the three-year window ending Dec. 31, according to attorney Rick Simons, who a judge appointed as plaintiffs’ liaison counsel to help manage the crush of litigation.

Until the end of the year, people under the age of 40 — instead of the typical 26 — can sue someone who abused them as a child or the person’s employer. In 2003, when state lawmakers similarly extended the statute of limitations for one year, 190 clergy abuse suits were filed in Northern California.

For Lewis the lawsuit is part of an ongoing reckoning, a process that led him to slowly reveal secrets and, for the first time in two decades, to return to the little white building.

That breezy November morning, the current owner made an offer Lewis hadn’t fathomed: Did he want to come inside?

Lewis’ face froze — blank.

Then he said yes.

When Father John Garcia was assigned to Immaculate Heart of Mary in the mid-1980s, the veteran priest had already served at seven other churches around the East Bay. He became popular in Brentwood, the Contra Costa County city that was then a sleepy and largely agricultural town.

Garcia was a fixture at Brentwood High School games and City Council meetings. One year, he was chosen as the grand marshal of a holiday parade. Garcia visited with ill and grieving people, often keeping stops short enough — he called them “five-minute visits” — so he could fit in more.

“He was an amazing priest,” said Greg Robinson, the publisher of Brentwood-based newspaper the Press, who worshiped under Garcia for a decade at the church. “He baptized both of my children. And he was a pillar in this community. I never heard anything negative about him.”

Robinson, like other parishioners who knew the priest, said they hadn’t suspected that he could be capable of what Lewis alleges.

Margaret Hoover, who became Immaculate Heart’s business manager shortly after Garcia's retirement, thought a beat for how to describe his reputation with congregants.

“He was God,” she said.

The Lewis family moved in the early 1990s from Fairfield to Brentwood where they had built a house near a cherry orchard.

Derek’s father, Derek Sr., picked Immaculate Heart because it was close to home.

Derek Jr. was a social, dimpled Oakland A’s devotee who played for the Devilrays in a pony league. He idolized his father, a Sysco food truck driver who coached his son’s baseball team. He gave Derek the nickname “Mojo,” which would stick for life.

Derek Sr. believed in raising Derek and his two sisters in church. Derek, always trying to be like his dad, took church seriously, too. He revered the rituals. He looked upon the pulpit as sacred ground and knew he wasn’t allowed to walk on it unless he was an altar boy.

Derek, about 8 years old, wanted to see what it was like up there amid the mystery and to be around the priest, this man of fancy flowing robes who Derek believed was something like a part of God.

Quickly into Derek’s altar boy training, his lawsuit would allege, Garcia started taking him out of catechism classes to abuse him, saying it was God’s will, that it was a sin to resist or tell anyone.

Around the same time the alleged abuse began, Derek’s father, in his mid-30s, was diagnosed with cancer after a tumor was discovered in his shoulder. The prognosis was dire.

“I love you very much,” Derek recalled his crying father saying one night. “But I’m probably not going to be with you guys anymore.”

Derek Jr. didn’t understand.

“Can I go with you?” he asked.

In the months that followed, Derek Sr. withered in a hospital bed at home, attached to IVs with his thick brown hair falling out. The sight of food made him vomit, and he grew desperately weak. The children moved to an aunt’s house while their mother took care of him. When the younger Derek and his sisters went to visit, they had to leave their shoes outside and wear gloves and surgical masks to protect their dad’s fragile immune system.

The priest prayed for the man’s health.

Once, the lawsuit alleges, when Derek resisted a sexual assault, Garcia paused and looked at him. Garcia was in his 70s, bald with a crown of wispy gray. He told Derek that his resistance was a sin against God, the suit said.

“Who knows,” Lewis remembered the priest saying. “He might just take your dad from you.”

Derek believed him. And so he relented, the lawsuit said — that time and every other time Garcia used that line.

California church officials have attempted to overturn the law that made Lewis’ lawsuit possible.

Assembly Bill 218 passed in 2019.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to AB218 led by Oakland Bishop Michael C. Barber. Attorneys for Barber and other California bishops said it had paid out more than $1 billion to resolve suits filed under a 2003 law that opened up the statute of limitations for one year, and that the second wave could be financially “ruinous.”

Because of the law, 116 lawsuits accusing 66 clergy members associated with archdioceses around the state — including in San FranciscoOaklandSanta Rosa and San Jose — have been filed in Alameda Superior Court before the Dec. 31 deadline, according to Jeff Anderson & Associates, a Minnesota-based law firm specializing in sexual abuse cases.

Fourteen of the clergy members named in the suits were publicly identified for the first time.

The 2019 bill, like its predecessor, was passed in recognition that it can take child-abuse survivors years to speak up. Like Lewis, who said he ended up fighting visions of the priest while homeless on the streets of Oakland, they must overcome intense trauma, shame and fear.

It wasn’t until the aftermath of the Boston Globe’s 2002 investigation of the Archdiocese of Boston that the crisis within the Catholic Church became well known. In the years that followed, allegations rose against priests all over the world.

A pattern emerged in which the church had protected accused priests and sent them to treatment centers or simply reassigned them to new parishes where abuse would continue.

Lewis’ experiences take place in the late 1990s, before the church’s secret history became public.

Dr. Paul Abramson, a UCLA psychology professor and researcher who has been helping Lewis, said Lewis’ memories of Garcia assemble a classic story of clergy grooming and manipulation.

“Everything he described to me fits the modus operandi,” said Abramson, who has served as a psychological expert witness for victims. He spoke to The Chronicle with Lewis’ permission.

Abramson even had another case where a priest used a father’s illness and the specter of God’s wrath to manipulate boys into submission.

Especially with children in devout families, religious leaders can be the ultimate figures of authority. That’s how it was for Derek, who said he believed Garcia when he said God would take his dad’s life.

Derek became convinced that any error could lead to his father’s death. He feared getting in trouble at school, getting a bad grade. He studied relentlessly and told himself he would not be the reason his dad died.

Despite expectations, Derek Sr.’s health improved.

The cancer went into remission, and he regained his strength, returning to work and coaching his son’s baseball team.

The father’s strength gave the son strength, Lewis remembered, and he tried more and more to resist Garcia.

The abuse stopped, Lewis said, when he finished catechism class and concluded his altar boy service around age 10. From then on, Derek only saw the priest on Sundays, and they weren’t alone.

In the next few years, the boy realized he had been manipulated. As a high school pitcher growing into a tall and lean frame, Derek fantasized about showing up at Immaculate Heart and attacking the old man.

Derek stopped going to church and didn’t tell a soul what he had experienced.

Mostly, he tried to pretend it never happened.

He did well enough until his dad, whose cancer reappeared in his lungs, died in 2010. The son, 23, hadn’t told his father about the priest.

The grief — and visions of Garcia — overtook Lewis.

He medicated himself with opioids. He forgot about his aspirations to teach high school history. He was in and out of Santa Rita Jail, the notorious Alameda County facility, on some drug-motivated theft of one kind or another.

In 2014, he lost custody of his 2-year-old daughter amid gnawing addiction and instability. After that, Lewis didn’t care what happened to him.

He kept spiraling until he crashed.

It happened in Pleasanton, where Lewis was walking around in search of a place to sleep. Lewis had become homeless in his late 20s, but did all he could to avoid sleeping outside.

Lewis’ body, bone-thin as it was, felt heavy as he wandered a humming commercial district while trying to figure out a plan. Near a Walmart, he ran out of energy. He dropped in between some bushes near a busy road and passed out.

He awoke in daylight, to people walking by like they didn’t see him.

Lewis remembered that scene, where it seemed like he’d become so lost that he disappeared, and it propelled him as he tried to recover after three years off and on the street. Long stays at Santa Rita Jail — sometimes weeks, sometimes months — had also left him determined not to return.

He completed a treatment program and got housing. After repeated rejections due to his criminal record, he got a job with a moving company. He found hard, steady work was the only way he could overcome trauma from the alleged abuse, his father’s death and long struggle, and losing custody of his daughter.

In August 2019, as Lewis clawed to pull himself back, Immaculate Heart held a memorial service honoring what would have been Garcia’s 100th birthday. Garcia died in 2003 at age 83. A meeting room at the church’s new location was named after him.

Lewis wouldn’t learn until much later that Garcia had died. He’d suspected the elderly man could be dead and, if he was still alive, Lewis wondered if he was hurting children.

About a year ago, Lewis was hanging out with a friend, both staring into their phones, when the friend mentioned an article he’d seen about victims of clergy abuse coming forward. Lewis still hadn’t told anyone his story. This was a trusted friend, who Lewis believed wouldn’t judge him. Later, Lewis decided to try telling someone.

“Wow, really?” the friend said.

As the man took in the information, Lewis started to cry, then panic.

“Never mind,” Lewis said, knowing there was no taking it back.

But he noticed that the friend didn’t treat him differently.

Through contacts from online survivors support group meetings, where he hid his face, Lewis met Abramson and, slowly, told the UCLA psychology professor about his encounters with Garcia. After four decades of speaking with victims, Abramson said he found Lewis utterly credible.

When they met in front of Garcia’s little white building in March, the doctor sat next to him on the bench as Lewis recounted details of the alleged abuse and what it was like on the other side of the front door.

Lewis’ lanky, tattooed frame was clinched with anxiety, his face was washed with tears, and he struggled to breathe. But he kept talking until he started to choke.

Eight months later, Lewis was back in front of the building when the front door opened and a man emerged.

“Mojo?” the man said, using the nickname Lewis’ dad gave him. The man, Brian, was something of a distant relative. He said he’d bought the building and turned it into a recording studio. He invited Lewis inside to check it out.

Lewis paused, then said sure.

He stepped over the threshold, a full-grown man now, with a girlfriend and a daughter, Mia, born in January 2021. Brian had installed his soundboard, a massive thing of knobs, faders and blinking lights, in what had been Garcia’s office. Lewis looked around, wide-eyed with his mouth open slightly. The setting of his darkest memories had been totally remodeled and was unrecognizable.

“I did all the framing, all the drywall, the wiring,” Brian was saying as Lewis realized the place he’d feared was gone, like the man he’d feared.

Lewis smiled and told him the studio was cool.

Later, outside, Lewis’ mind sped.

“It looks so much different. It’s just not the same. Not the same at all,” he said, exhaling.

Joshua Sharpe is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @joshuawsharpe


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