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Sacramento Catholic diocese settles priest sex abuse lawsuit involving Woodland woman

Catholic Church settlement is ‘a way of silencing the victim’

Dorothy Small said that a recent fund announced by the Catholic Church was "a way of silencing the victim," Tuesday, May 21, 2019 in Sacramento.
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Dorothy Small said that a recent fund announced by the Catholic Church was "a way of silencing the victim," Tuesday, May 21, 2019 in Sacramento.

A Woodland woman has received a $200,000 settlement from the Sacramento Catholic Diocese and the current pastor of a Woodland church after filing a lawsuit in 2017 accusing a former priest of sexual assault and claiming church officials largely ignored her pleas for help.

Dorothy Small’s lawsuit alleged that she met the Rev. Renerio Sabuga Jr., the then-new assistant priest at Woodland’s Holy Rosary Catholic Church in 2014. Within months, the lawsuit claimed, Sabuga pursued Small romantically until he allegedly “cornered (Small) in her bedroom and sexually assaulted” her Feb. 17, 2015.

The allegations in Small’s lawsuit went on to say officials with the Sacramento diocese, and others at Holy Rosary, including current pastor the Rev. Jonathan Molina, did not do enough to address Small’s requests for help in the months after she took the complaints to church officials at the diocese – which was her preference over taking the matter to police.

Small, her attorney Joseph George and a coordinator with Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) discussed the case and provided a copy of the recent settlement during a Tuesday news conference at George’s office in Sacramento.

Although she did not refer to Sabuga by name Tuesday, Small recounted the experience of the priest as a “highly skilled,” “very charismatic” predator who took advantage of her trust in him and in her vulnerabilities that stemmed from childhood trauma.

“Trust already goes with the vocation,” said Small, still a devout Catholic. “It’s not something the priest has to earn. He already has it.”

Small previously told The Sacramento Bee that Sabuga offered his services as a “secular counselor,” but used these sessions to groom Small as a potential sexual partner. On one occasion, Sabuga allegedly started taking his pants off inside her Woodland home while he was over for tea before she told him to stop.

“We reached a mutually agreeable settlement with the woman involved,” Sacramento diocese spokesman Kevin Eckery said Tuesday, declining further comment regarding Small’s case. He said the matter is now considered closed.

Small said she did not report the February 2015 sexual assault incident to Woodland police, but informed church officials, and that police had been called to her home in June 2014 amid a stream of alleged “continuous sexual harassment.”

Dorothy Small alleges that a Woodland priest pursued her romantically and then sexually assaulted her in 2015. She is suing the Sacramento Catholic Diocese.

The lawsuit also claimed that when Small told one priest about the sexual assault claim, he allegedly responded: “What man wouldn’t want a piece of a-- every now and then?”

Eckery told The Bee in 2017 that Sabuga was written up for “carrying on a relationship with a woman outside his vows,” and fired when the issue arose gain.

George said Sabuga was removed from Holy Rosary and sent for “boundaries training,” referred to in the lawsuit as a one-week suspension, but returned to the church and began counseling sessions with Small.

Small said church officials misrepresented what had occurred in taking her report.

“It was reported as an inappropriate relationship with an adult woman,” Small said Tuesday. “Unfortunately, that trivializes it and makes it seem as if it was a relationship – inappropriate – when it was really abuse of power and authority, and in my case it was also sexual assault. I was asked ‘Why didn’t you kick him during the assault?’ My brain couldn’t wrap around that. How do you kick a priest?”

Sabuga was transferred out of Woodland to St. Clare Catholic Church in Roseville in July 2016, according to the lawsuit. The next month, the diocese issued announcements at two local churches where Sabuga had served that officials had “received a credible allegation that Father Sabuga had conducted himself inappropriately with an adult.”

Sabuga’s firing terminated his visa, at which point he returned to the Philippines. George said Tuesday that Sabuga is currently an active priest in Philippines “as far as we know,” but The Bee could not immediately confirm whether that was the case.

Small said she was initially offered six counseling sessions by the diocese to address the matters of harassment and sexual assault, but that she eventually received 30 sessions before being cut off.

Small was allowed to continue attending services at the church. However, after years singing in the church choir, Small said Tuesday and the lawsuit claimed that she was effectively barred from her ministry position with the choir, and that in a conversation with Molina, he told her she would not be allowed to lead the choir unless Sabuga were allowed to return.

Molina could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday. The defense attorney in the civil lawsuit redirected requests for comment to the Sacramento diocese.

In light of recent announcements by archdioceses and dioceses nationwide releasing the names of priests credibly accused of abusing minors, Small, George and SNAP coordinator Melanie Sakoda expressed their view that priest abuse of adults cannot be overlooked.

“I think that the abuse of adults by clergy, particularly adult women, is gonna be the next tsunami in the Catholic church,” Sakoda said. “There are just so many of them.”

Sabuga was not on the list released April 30 by Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento’s diocese, which only included adults aged 18 to 25. George said Small was “struck” by the age cutoff of 25 years old for adults, which he said seemed arbitrary.

“I can say that of the 20 women that I ever represented for what I’d call adult clergy abuse, none were under 25,” said George, who has handled clergy abuse cases since the 1980s.

He added that the typical “prototype” of adult clergy abuse in his firsthand experience is a woman between her mid-30s and 50s who was “being wronged by a man in some way,” and went to the parish priest for guidance. These priests then “preyed upon and exploited the vulnerabilities of those women to commence sexual relations,” the attorney said.

The announcement of the settlement came one week after six dioceses in California, including Sacramento, announced the creation of the Independent Victims Compensation Program, intended to ease the process for abuse victims to receive monetary compensation. Soto said in a statement that the program is “part of our effort to own and atone for the Church’s failure to protect children and young people abused by Catholic priests.”

Sakoda on Tuesday urged wariness of the new compensation program, warning abused individuals to take cautions in trusting church officials on the matter of monetary payouts.

“Once you’ve gotten something from the compensation program, you have to sign on the dotted line that you’re not gonna sue,” Sakoda said. “So it’s a way of limiting their damages ahead of time.”

The case was settled in mediation Feb. 13 and signed by Molina and diocese vicar general Rev. Michael Vaughan on Feb. 28. The settlement called for $200,000 to be paid to Small by three defendants: the Sacramento diocese, the Holy Rosary Parish and Molina.

“That’s the only way we’re gonna get to the bottom of this, to make the religious institutions change, is to have them called before the civil courts,” Sakoda said.

However, Small said the civil lawsuit was in essence a last resort for her, and that the path of litigation represents “a way of silencing the victim.” Small’s settlement terms specifically indicate that no confidentiality agreement is applied.

Additionally, Small said, settlement via lawsuit does not address the issue of pastoral care and counseling she says are crucial to recovering religious victims.

“Here you are, you’ve been injured by a priest. And your spiritual needs – where do you go to take care of your spiritual needs when, before, you went to a priest?”

Correction: Sabuga was an assistant priest at the parish, he was not the pastor, as indicated in a previous version of this story.

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Michael McGough anchors The Sacramento Bee’s breaking news reporting team, covering public safety and other local stories. A Sacramento native and lifelong capital resident, he interned at The Bee while attending Sacramento State, where he earned a degree in journalism.

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