Religion

Sacramento Catholic diocese delays list of sex-abusing priests to conduct independent review

Bishop Jaime Soto, along with the deans of the Diocese of Sacramento, celebrate a special Mass for the newly-elected Pope Francis in Sacramento on March 19, 2013.
Bishop Jaime Soto, along with the deans of the Diocese of Sacramento, celebrate a special Mass for the newly-elected Pope Francis in Sacramento on March 19, 2013. rpench@sacbee.com

The Catholic Diocese of Sacramento said this week it will postpone releasing names of priests accused of sexual abuse until an independent auditor can review thousands of personnel records.

A spokesman for the diocese on Oct. 10 said it planned on having staff members produce a list within a few weeks. Monday, Bishop Jaime Soto said that the sensitivity of the matter combined with the increased scrutiny towards the Catholic church required hiring an outside investigator as a more “prudent” course of action.

“There (are) a lot of files, more than 2,000 files, that have to be reviewed and my staff was overwhelmed by the size of the task and the expectation that it would be an accurate and transparent list,” Soto said.

Soto said the diocese planned to hire former FBI agent Kathleen McChesney, a consultant who has worked with other dioceses to do similar reviews. In 2002, McChesney worked with the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops, the church’s national leadership organization, to create its office of Child and Youth Protection.

In 2015, McChesney reviewed personnel files at the Archdiocese of Seattle, leading to the release of a list of 77 priests and other church officials with credible child sexual abuse allegations against them. In 2018, she reviewed the records of the Diocese of Little Rock and named eight priests with substantiated sex abuse allegations. In California, her firm has been hired to review the personnel files of the Diocese of San Jose and the Diocese of Oakland.

The Diocese of Sacramento hasn’t set a firm date for when the list will be completed, but spokesman Kevin Eckery said it hopes McChesney will begin in late February or early March and finish the review within a few weeks.

Soto called the delay “frustrating” but said it was necessary to ensure a credible list.

Along with the names of priests accused of sexual misconduct with minors, the diocese will release brief descriptions of allegations and when they occurred, Soto said.

Eckery said the diocese was uncertain if it would release the current employment status of the accused priests, or their current location. He said he expected any named priests would have already been dismissed by the church and their location might not be available.

“If they’re cut loose, they’re cut loose,” Eckery said. “We would rarely know where they go.”

Soto’s decision to scour local records for abusers follows similar actions in other dioceses as stories of widespread sexual abuse and coverups continue to rattle the church. A nearly 900-page Pennsylvania grand jury report released in August found bishops and other church leaders concealed the child sexual abuse of more than 300 priests over a 70-year period.

It is a “very difficult time for the church and for Catholics and also for many of their pastors and priests,” Soto said. “This is also a time for me to own what has been our path and for us to recognize that and do what we can to atone for what has happened.”

In the early 2000s, the Sacramento diocese agreed to pay $35 million to settle 33 sexual abuse cases against 10 priests in the diocese. More recently, a Sacramento Catholic priest, Uriel Ojeda, pleaded guilty in 2013 to molesting a 13-year-old girl.

Eckery said in a previous interview that the current probe will likely include more than those previously identified priests.

Releasing the names of church officials accused of sexual abuse reflects regional dioceses efforts to increase transparency, but rarely results in criminal prosecution. In the case of the Seattle Archdiocese and the Diocese of Little Rock, no arrests or charges were made against accused church officials as a result of new names being released. While some identified had previously been arrested and charged with crimes, many of the newly identified church officials were deceased, or had committed the alleged abuse several decades ago, exceeding statutes of limitation.

Soto said he was uncertain if it would be possible to compile a list of any staff or other priests who helped abusers escape punishment by covering up allegations. The Catholic church has been accused in instances of sexual abuse of moving priests to other locations and failing to report the crimes to authorities. Identifying those individuals using personnel files would be difficult, Soto said.

The Catholic Diocese of Sacramento oversees more than one million Catholics and more than 100 parishes across 20 Northern California counties, according to the diocese’s 2018 directory.

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