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The sister’s battle with the bishop

Bishop Patrick Ziemann had sweeping powers in the Santa Rosa diocese — until an elderly nun’s outrage helped knock him off his feet. MSNBC’s Jon Bonné reports.
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Until he resigned, Bishop Patrick Ziemann wielded sweeping powers in the Diocese of Santa Rosa. But the outrage of one elderly nun from Ukiah helped knock him off his feet. For Sister Jane Kelly, exposing the bishop turned out to be the final step in an exasperating battle against the institutional power of the Catholic church.

Kelly's decision in 1999 to reveal Ziemann’s wrongdoing was hardly rash. The sister, who made her vows at age 17 just after World War II and spent a life inside the confines of the church, fought for years to quietly resolve what she saw as an intractable situation before she went public.

A member of San Francisco’s Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary order, Kelly had already served nearly two decades as religious education director at St. Mary of the Angels Church in Ukiah, Calif., when Ziemann contacted her in 1993 and said he was sending her Jorge Hume Salas, a Costa Rican-born Catholic who claimed to be on track to join the priesthood.

Ziemann’s decision puzzled her: She had no experience teaching seminarians, she didn’t speak Spanish and she felt Hume’s English wasn’t good enough for the necessary instruction. The bishop was unfazed.

Moreover, Kelly pointed out, there were no records of Hume’s prior seminary training or results from psychiatric tests that are a standard part of scrutinizing potential priests. “Before we have these results,” she remembers thinking to herself, “Jorge could be a psychopathic liar or a psychopathic killer.”

The bishop wouldn’t budge: Hume would stay in Ukiah and train for the priesthood. Kelly protested but followed the bishop’s orders, even as Ziemann himself ordained Hume a deacon without a single word of input from Kelly.

Indeed, the first time the bishop sought her advice was less than a week before Hume’s 1994 ordination as a priest. Ziemann asked her whether Hume was priestly material.

“I said, ‘No, no, bishop, that’s your decision,’” Kelly recounts. Clearly, though, she had her doubts: “I just felt he was a con artist. There was just something not right.”

Sudden wealth
After Hume was brought into the priesthood, his lifestyle seemed to Kelly a bit extravagant for a junior priest. He soon was sporting new clothes and a new car, his apartment furnished with a new VCR, TV and computer. She confronted him; he denied anything untoward was happening. Then at a staff meeting, Father Hans Ruygt mentioned funds missing from the weekly collections. Hume was at the meeting, at which they decided to go to police and install a video camera to monitor the bags of money kept in the sacristy; soon after, the discrepancies stopped.

Kelly remained suspicious, so she persuaded Ruygt to change the combination to the safe; only Ruygt and Hume would know the new one. Money started disappearing again.

That was enough for the sister and the priest, who called in the police. An officer came to the parish late one night to arrest Hume Salas. When they forced their way into Hume’s residence, they found him with a young man. They searched the room and came upon a locked closet. Ruygt forced Hume to open it. Inside: a box full of plastic bags from Wells Fargo bank.

As they uncovered Hume’s apparent scheme, Ruygt called in Ziemann — “the biggest mistake he ever made,” Kelly says.

The next day, the bishop drove the 60 miles up to Ukiah. He made the church officials and staff swear not to discuss the incident. Hume was taken away, and the parish was told he was getting treatment.

Pushed too far
Soon enough, though, Kelly found out he was celebrating Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Windsor, just north of Santa Rosa. Amid pressure, Hume was pulled from the church and sent to St. John the Baptist Church in Napa. (He was accused of sexual abuse at St. John, a charge he denies.) Kelly was beside herself. She sat down and demanded an explanation from the bishop.

There was no reply.

She wrote two letters to Father James Gaffey, a key member of the diocese personnel committee. Gaffey finally acknowledged Hume had come up briefly, but the matter was never discussed at length.

She finally brought the matter to Monsignor Thomas Keys, Ziemann’s top aide, who gave what she described as an “Academy Award” performance trying to get her to leave the matter alone.

It was too much. The daughter of an Oakland Tribune newsman, Kelly finally turned to a local reporter in early 1999 and told her story. As she waited for it to go to print, she discovered Ziemann had been confronted in 1996 with tapes of four Hispanic young men who all claimed Hume had sexually abused them. What she didn’t know at the time was that Hume and his lawyer had been seeking a multimillion-dollar settlement from the diocese over a sexual relationship with the bishop. Hume eventually admitted some $1,200 in theft — money he claimed he gave away — but denied allegations of stealing more than $10,000.

In July, as Hume publicly filed suit against the bishop, alleging a long sexual relationship, Ziemann stepped down and was apparently sent to a Pennsylvania church-run treatment center.

‘Poison is pouring out’
Despite the years of upheaval in her church, and even amid the widening national crisis, Kelly remains upbeat. She sees this as a moment for massive reform.

“The scandal is one thing. The cover-up by these cardinals and these bishops, it’s a crime. They should all be in jail,” she says. “This is a marvelous opportunity of hope for the church. This abscess on the body of Christ has been there for centuries, and now we’re lancing it, poison is pouring out, and the laity and good bishops are saying, ‘No more.’”

Kelly has her share of critics, especially since she advocates far more than usual calls for a married priesthood or women priests. For her, healing the church requires a quantum leap beyond the reforms begun at the Second Vatican Council: Do away with priests entirely, and let parishes choose their spiritual leaders themselves.

“We should close every seminary and go back to the church in the early first century. And what do we see there? The apostles were not priests,” she says.

Still, even devout Catholics in the Santa Rosa diocese sing Kelly’s praises, if for no other reason than her steadfast willingness to take on a figure of significant religious and political clout. “The only person in the diocese who has the cojones to do anything is Sister Jane Kelly,” says Dr. Paul Miller. “The male clergy are wusses in comparison.”

Kelly has circulated a manuscript of a book on her experiences in the Santa Rosa diocese — “I know I’ll be excommunicated,” she jokes — and she continues her work in Ukiah with charities and the local parish.

In her eyes, this is a time of revolution in the Catholic Church — perhaps one of the most significant in its two millennia of history. Through it all, she maintains Catholics can keep their faith even if the institution of the church crumbles around them.

“We’ve taken the rock of Peter and turned it over, and look what we found,” Kelly says. “And now were going to heal it and bring it back to where it belonged.”