Santa Rosa Priests, Victims Meet: California Diocese Struggles to Overcome History of Sexual Abuse, Cover-Ups

By Kovner, Guion M. | National Catholic Reporter, July 5, 2002 | Go to article overview

Santa Rosa Priests, Victims Meet: California Diocese Struggles to Overcome History of Sexual Abuse, Cover-Ups


Kovner, Guion M., National Catholic Reporter


Catholic clerics from this scandal-battered diocese met June 18 with victims of more than two decades of child molestation, an era when bishops and clergy alike formed a wall of secrecy around the crimes of five priests.

"You could see the pain in their eyes," said Fr. David Shaw, pastor of Resurrection Parish, recalling the victims' testimony at a diocesan retreat.

Shaw, a priest for 34 years, and Bishop Daniel Walsh, who took over the 140,000-member Northern California diocese two years ago, believe the standards set by U.S. bishops and a reinvigorated laity spell an end to the sexual misconduct revealed in lawsuits and criminal prosecutions since 1994.

The diocese already has implemented most of the reforms in the national policy adopted by the bishops at their recent conference in Dallas, including a lay-clergy review board to investigate sex abuse claims.

Walsh has encouraged sex abuse victims to go to the police, and Shaw asserts that bishops, despite the absence of sanctions in the national policy, will never again shield sex offenders from prosecution or transfer them from one job to another.

"The laity will hold their feet to the fire," Shaw said.

But the sprawling diocese, which stretches from Santa Rosa to the Oregon border, looks back on a sordid history of sex crimes, cover-ups and payoffs.

Two priests have been sent to state prison. Another committed suicide in 1995 and his accuser died in March 2001 of chronic drug abuse. The diocese acknowledges paying $7.4 million to settle sex abuse victims' claims.

Court records show that two former Santa Rosa bishops--Mark Hurley and John Steinbock--failed to discipline priests who were violating the law and the trust of teenage parishioners. A third former bishop, G. Patrick Ziemann, fired three priests accused of sexual misconduct but loaned one of them $40,000 for his legal defense.

Hurley is deceased. Steinbock, now bishop of Fresno, Calif., has taken a hard line on sexual misconduct in that Central California diocese.

Ziemann, who resigned after admitting a homosexual relationship with another priest in 1999, left the diocese $16 million, in debt. He lives at a Benedictine monastery near Tombstone, Ariz.

Hurley's tenure from 1969-87 was marked by child molestations the length of the diocese, but shrouded in secrecy.

"I've never gone to the police," Hurley said in a 1995 deposition. "I think there's a danger in that and therefore, I never reported anything on anybody to the police."

Hurley also testified that he tore up confidential personnel records before leaving the chancery. He died last year after surgery at a San Francisco hospital.

His brother, Frank Hurley, is the retired archbishop of Anchorage, Alaska.

Under oath, Mark Hurley emphatically denied any knowledge of wrongdoing by former priest Gary Timmons prior to 1994, when allegations by the son of a Sonoma County judge and prominent Catholic were first reported. …

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