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A California diocese feels the pain

In California, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa has been through one of the most wrenching sexual abuse scandals in the nation. Is this the shape of things to come for Catholic America? By Jon Bonné.
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As the son of a priest, Joe Filice has no reason to feel awkward around men of the cloth. Filice, who works as a counselor at a Roman Catholic center for troubled boys, watched with pride as his father entered the priesthood after his mother died. Yet the scandals of his church and its priests have all but worn him out. “The first thing you lose is a trust,” said Filice, a devout Catholic and the father of five young children. “I couldn’t see myself letting my kids be alone with them these days. It’s just horrible.”

Most catholic parishes across America have been broad-sided by the recent critical mass of sexual misconduct among their clergy. Here in Northern California, however, Filice and the other faithful in California’s Diocese of Santa Rosa have come to accept scandal virtually as a part of church life. Still, the latest wash of accusations has driven many to their limit — and forced them to consider the very roots of their belief.

With the Vatican signaling a tougher, more open approach to sexual abuse scandals, the Santa Rosa experience may be the shape of things to come for parishes around the nation.

“This is a total violation of trust,” said Dennis Crandall, principal of Santa Rosa’s Cardinal Newman High School, which is tied directly to the diocese. “We need to be all together in making this right. And not only making this right in what has occurred, but also making this right in the future.”

The churches that make up the vast diocese, which stretches from wine country north of San Francisco to the Oregon border, have confronted such crises for years, if not decades.

Reports of fiscal impropriety stretch back to its founding in the early 1960s, but the downward spiral truly began in the early 1990s, when several young men accused diocese priests of sexual abuse. Then in 1996, officials received complaints that one priest in Ukiah, Calif., Father Jorge Hume Salas, stole thousands of dollars in collection funds.

Charges and countercharges surrounding Salas continued until 1999, when he sued the then-bishop of the diocese, Patrick Ziemann, claiming Ziemann had pressured him for sex for years to cover up the alleged thefts.

Ziemann resigned and was sent for treatment in a Pennsylvania treatment facility, but the damage wrought by the bishop — known for his perpetual free-spending ways — became clear: Carefree spending, a lack of accounting and some questionable investments in Europe had landed the diocese some $30 million in debt. Cardinal Newman School, for example, found itself out $1.6 million after entrusting the diocese with its finances.

Charge upon charge
That was just the beginning. As the Salas charges wound down, accusations came against Father Gary Timmons, accused of molesting some 20 young boys. Another diocese priest who worked with Timmons was accused of molesting a boy two decades earlier and killed himself. Meanwhile, two grown women accused Father Don Kimball of sexually abusing them in their teens. One even described how, she said, Kimball accompanied her to San Francisco for an abortion. After losing a civil suit, Kimball was convicted last week of sexual misconduct but acquitted of rape charges. And just Monday, Bishop Daniel Walsh — who was appointed to fix the mess Ziemann made — suspended the Rev. Anthony Ross, another diocese priest accused of molesting a 15-year-old boy some 20 years ago in Joliet, Ill.

Over two decades, the diocese has spent some $7.4 million to settle claims of priestly sexual misconduct, not including extra money to pay for victims’ counseling.

So much has been set upon the 140,000 Catholics in the 42 widely spread parishes in Santa Rosa’s domain that any shock has largely been replaced by a sense of grim acknowledgement.

“I’m depressed. I’m anxious,” said one parish priest who personally knew some of the accused. “I wake up after three hours of sleep and this is what I think of.”

In public meetings and in private conversations, the diocese here has finally acknowledged the depth of its hurt. Some parish priests refuse to wear their clerical collars in public, hesitant to draw glares and nasty comments. Other priests have addressed the crisis directly from the pulpit, opening a discussion of subjects that might seem even to the agnostic a bit heady for a house of worship.

Yet as Santa Rosa’s Catholics face what to some seems an unending list of travesties, there remains a sense of quiet dedication among those inside and outside the priesthood to maintaining order and a sense of religious mission, especially for their children.

“It’s at that time when chaos is at its worst that reason must prevail,” said Sandy Passalacqua, principal of St. John the Baptist Catholic School in Healdsburg, located in the parish where Kimball and other accused priests served. “We have a job to do, and we continue to keep on going. ... The fact that human frailty has become a part of our community, well, so what?”

Immediate effects
But a hard-kept devotion — and resolve to transcend the tawdry details of sexual abuse — hasn’t prevented many across the diocese from closing their pocketbooks. Many parishes find dwindling collection plates. Some make sure to explain which funds will be kept in the parish and which will be passed up to the diocese. The local Catholic Charities branch has seen only a slight dip in its nearly $5 million in annual spending on everything from immigration services to Alzheimer’s counseling — but only, they point out, because they have taken great pains to remind donors that they exist as a separate entity from the diocese. Money does not cross over. Even so, charitable Catholics remain skeptical.

Through sheer will and with leadership from Walsh, who was charged by San Francisco Archbishop William Levada with a strict reform mission, Santa Rosa’s Catholic infrastructure has begun what everyone describes as a long and arduous healing process.

As U.S. cardinals met in Rome behind closed doors amid a churn of speculation on their motives and options, clerics and the laity alike here stressed a common set of needs for healing: openness, honesty and a die-hard determination not to lose faith. That means, they acknowledge, some frank and discomfiting talk in classrooms and churches and even around the dinner table. But as Catholics across the nation seek answers to the toughest dilemma in at least a generation, the faithful of Santa Rosa hope they can offer an example of stoic perseverance in troubled times.

“We’re ahead of many dioceses because we’re already two, three years beyond,” said Crandall, who has been a Catholic educator for nearly three decades. “It’s almost like, ‘Oh my God, other parts of the country and other parts of the world are experiencing this.’ ... The pain from this could create some really positive changes.”