After publishing the list of priests credibly accused of molesting children within the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento over the last 70 years, the first email I received was from a gentleman concerned with the image of the church:
“Demonizing the Catholic Church. Well it’s just wrong,” he wrote. “(The Bee story on the publishing of the names of pedophile priests) sends a message that like 90 percent of priests are sexual abusers. You have to go to page 7, deep into the article to read that 3 percent are abusers. That’s 3 percent too much. But it’s shameful the need to sensationalize. To focus and unfairly categorize. Attack an institution like the Catholic Church because it sells papers?”
He then emailed me a Bee story about homeless people being evicted by the county from a camp on Stockton Boulevard and asked: “What percentage of sexual predators within this community? Do a study. Will it hit the headlines? Front page. Above the fold.”
This is a common refrain about the coverage of pedophile priests within the Catholic Church. The argument being: It’s a small percentage. It’s a few bad apples. Why are you condemning the whole church?
Well, as a cradle Catholic and a journalist for more than 30 years, I can’t categorize these complaints as anything other than denial. Yes, the names of Catholic priests that Sacramento’s Diocese made public on Tuesday – 44 in all – constituted about 3 percent of personnel files of priests, bishops and deacons who have ministered to Catholics from Vallejo to the Oregon.
And three notorious former priests – Francisco Javier, Mario Blanco and Gerardo Beltran – accounted for almost half of the 130 victims in the list of sexual abuse cases made public by the diocese.
Does that mean many wonderful priests have tended to the spiritual well being of Catholics throughout the region? It is absolutely true. My life has been enriched by knowing wonderful men such as Monsignor James Murphy, the former vicar of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.
The late Bishop Francis Quinn was as dear a man as you would ever meet and one of the most beloved figures in Sacramento of the last half century.
The current Bishop, Jaime Soto, is a fine man who is trying to bring more transparency to a church that once shielded pedophiles and moved them around to different parishes, where they preyed on more people.
So how do we balance the good within the church with the criminals who abused children and, in too many instances, got away with it?
How? By facing up to this terrible scandal without reservations or protests. Penance is a part of spiritual learning and we Catholics have to take our penance now without attempting to deflect from the unspeakable crimes that have been committed by men who were given too much deference by parishioners and too much cover by the church brass.
First, we need to take the information published by Sacramento’s Catholic Diocese with a grain of salt despite Soto revealing more than some of his fellow bishops have.
The numbers provided by the diocese are just that: They were provided by the diocese. A third party was involved in this process, a former FBI agent – contracted by the diocese.
In addition, the number of priests and the percentage of priests, bishops and deacons they represent within the diocese must be qualified. These numbers are only priests affiliated with Sacramento’s Diocese. They don’t account for the number of priests who are affiliated with various religious orders.
And the numbers made public only account for cases in which victims came forward. And here lies the rub. We know – or we should know – that most cases of child sexual abuse are not reported to authorities.
On Tuesday, I spoke by phone with a victim whose case was documented in the information made public by the diocese. He asked to remain anonymous because of the trauma he endured, and to protect his privacy. Of all the disturbing details this victim, shared with me, several stood out, including this: He knew of other victims, former classmates, who didn’t come forward.
He said he was targeted by a now-deceased priest, William Feeser, who died in 2012. The year before his death, Feeser was removed from ministry after he was credibly accused of sexual abuse by this victim and one other.
The abuse perpetrated against the victim occurred at Our Lady of Assumption in Carmichael in the late 1970s. The victim was in junior high at the parish school. And Father Feeser? Well, he was described as quite the character.
“(Feeser) made no qualms about buddying up with boys and verbally abusing girls, “ said the victim, now 50. “He was slimy. He had a sports car and he took boys for rides in his car and had this little group of guys he favored.”
The victim had lost his dad, who passed away in the late ‘70s. Shortly after his father’s death Father Feeser took special interest in him.
“He used to wear black Angels Flight pants with flared bottoms,” he said. “He wore platform shoes. If that were happening now it would draw attention but not then....Around my 12th birthday, he made sure I missed detention and missed the car pool.
“That’s when he made his move.”
The diocese described it this way: “Sexual touching and fondling of a minor under 14.” In truth, it was worse than that.
Then and now, this was against the law. This was a crime.
The victim reported it to his mother, who told the parish priest. Nothing happened.
Feeser later taught at Jesuit High School, among other schools, and remained a priest until 2011.
The victim remembers a classmate, another boy, who he suspects was also molested by Feeser. That former classmate has had a troubled adult life of substance abuse and incarceration, the victim said.
His story has been corroborated by his former lawyer, Joseph C. George – who has sued the diocese many times on behalf of victims of sexual abuse.
George currently has two active against the diocese scheduled to go to trial later this year. God knows how many other victims are out there, which is why the Diocese of Sacramento needs to do more – and those of us who support the diocese need to insist that they do more.
Bishop Quinn was a wonderful man, but he admitted shortly before his death that he and other bishops made the unspeakable mistake of concealing the abuse of priests.
Quinn said he and other bishops needed to ask for forgiveness.
Only the victims can grant that. But all of us must stare this crisis in its face without flinching or deflecting. Of course, the church is often a force for good. Of course, the men who wear collars can be wonderful people of faith.
But what happened in the church was unacceptable.
When Bishop Soto spoke of “sins” and “evil” of the predators, he forgot to use one word: Criminals. What happened here were crimes. And from now on, every reported case needs to be treated as a crime. Too many men got away with hurting children because of the collars they wore.
They didn’t deserve the deference they received. They deserved prison – all of them. And if we make excuses otherwise, we are worshiping the men in collars as opposed to the God whose teachings they violated. And the secular laws meant to protect children.