Agony in the garden

A California diocese recovers from a sex-abuse scandal, and finds that healing comes through facing the truth.

Published March 30, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

In one of the most significant developments in the troubled recent history of the American Catholic Church, a diocese has agreed to do something about alleged sexual abuse by a priest that the church has never done before: apologize.

As part of a $1.6 million settlement announced this month, officials of the Diocese of Santa Rosa, which stretches from suburbs north of San Francisco to the Oregon border, have agreed to apologize to the victims of the accused priest, and to fund a counseling program that will be overseen by abuse victims or their representatives.

The unprecedented agreement, worked out by victims' lawyers in cooperation with diocese financial officer Monsignor John Brenkle, is the most substantive sign of change yet in a diocese rocked by an escalating series of sexual and financial scandals. Over the past decade the Santa Rosa Diocese and its insurers have paid out at least $6 million in settlement fees to victims of sexual abuse by priests.

A monsignor, convicted of molestation, is in prison; one priest fled the country after repeated molestation charges; another committed suicide. On Friday, a former diocesan priest and youth ministry leader was charged with rape and committing lewd acts against minors in a series of complaints dating back several decades.

The situation reached a climax in June when Bishop George Patrick Ziemann, the diocese's charismatic prelate, resigned amid charges of sexual harassment and coercion brought by a priest, Father Jorge Hume Salas, who had himself been dismissed after being accused of stealing from church collections. Ziemann, who resigned July 21 after Hume Salas filed a lawsuit against him, at first denied the sexual relationship. Then, confronted with taped and DNA evidence, he admitted it, but insisted the sex was consensual. Hume Salas' lawsuit is now in pre-trial preparation.

In the weeks and months that followed, it was revealed that, on Ziemann's watch, the diocesan funds had been raided to the tune of some $16 million. Money collected for school construction, parish maintenance, missions and church charities was instead used for payments to abuse victims, expansion programs, new hires and high-risk investments that left the diocese nearly bankrupt.

Ziemann, exercising his Fifth Amendment rights against possible criminal charges, has refused to talk to police or the media. Monsignor Thomas Keys, the diocese's former high-profile finance officer, has gone into seclusion. More bad news emerges almost monthly -- most recently the revelation that Ziemann and Keys, desperate to recoup their losses, invested $5 million in a Luxembourg-based firm that was under investigation for fraud by the U.S. government. To recover the missing funds, the diocese has joined a class-action lawsuit.

And yet the scandal may in the end show the way to a revitalized diocese and church. March has seen a remarkable number of apologies from church leaders, ranging from Pope John Paul II's historic request for forgiveness of the church's failings over centuries, to a small, moving ceremony held in Oakland, Calif., last weekend, where Bishop John Cummins publicly apologized to sexual-abuse victims in his diocese.

In the Diocese of Santa Rosa, leaders agreed to hold a cathartic series of town meetings, chaired by Brenkle, to let Catholic laymen as well as women, nuns and priests air their fear and anger. I attended one last month, and witnessed both the pain and the surprising healing power the scandals have unleashed within one corner of the church.

"When this news broke, I was devastated," Brenkle told a standing-room-only crowd in the gym of St. Eugene's Cathedral in Santa Rosa. "I didn't believe the accusations against the bishop. Then the bishop came out, admitted his sexual misconduct, and we priests were just shocked."

A cherub in his late 60s, gentle, avuncular and smart, Brenkle is probably the most respected priest in the diocese. In 1992, when the previous bishop left an already troubled ministry, 43 priests of this diocese sent a letter to the Vatican requesting that Brenkle be appointed their new bishop.

But Pope John Paul II, uncomfortable with the turbulence of democracy, looked instead to the nearest ranking hierarch, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles. Mahony sent Ziemann, one of his auxiliary bishops, to Santa Rosa. Former Los Angeles clergy now occupy the dioceses of Fresno, Stockton, Monterey, San Francisco, Orange County, Boise and Salt Lake City; several of these bishops are also Mahony's former classmates.

Now Brenkle, the man whose appointment might have prevented this mess, has been handed a mop and told to clean it up. The irony isn't lost on him.

"As things began to unfold, I found myself angry," he told the town meeting. "I felt duped, lied to and manipulated. Anger was followed by guilt -- what could I have done to prevent this? There were red flags, I could have pursued it. We would go to a meeting where we would be introduced to new people, very able most of them, brought in to take care of the various ministries. We were told, 'We have the money.'"

Brenkle recalled being contacted by someone from the Campaign for Human Development, the fund-raising arm of the Catholic Church's charities, and told that some $90,000 that had been reported collected hadn't been passed on. "Why did I not pursue that? Well, I had other things to do in my life. My own parish to administer. I trusted the bishop."

Then San Francisco Archbishop William Levada called him about the emerging scandal. "When the archbishop says he needs to see you, you know you're in trouble. He sat in my office, he said it would take a day or two or a week of my time. Even he didn't know the extent of this. What has happened here has sent shock waves through the dioceses of the nation. We could prove to be a model for other dioceses."

There was rueful audience laughter at this.

But Brenkel urged the audience to keep their faith, and work to reform their church. "I've been through some wonderful times with this diocese, and I'm not going to bail out now that we're going through some difficult times. That's life. You go through good times and bad times, and you grow through both of them."

Brenkle was followed by Jim Dillon, a lean, silver-haired retired bank executive and chairman of the newly created diocese financial council. On this night he was charged with making sense of the numbers.

"I knew Bishop Ziemann," Dillon began, like a polished finance officer making a boardroom presentation. "I was impressed with his charisma. I had a tough time accepting what had happened."

"What happened" was a case study in bad management. "The reason we haven't been more forthcoming with information is that we don't know ourselves where some of the money went," Brenkle told me in an interview. Only Ziemann and Keys know this, and there is a feeling that more bad news could come at any time.

But Dillon tried to make sense of the existing bad news anyway. "Generally, there were too many ministries, too many employees, no concern for financial responsibility," Dillon explained. "For eight years, there was no budget. The chancery office was running an annual deficit in excess of two-and-a-half million dollars.

"The money all went to operating expenses. There were no vacation homes, no Cadillacs, no expensive gifts to people. It all went to ministries. Another $3.5 million went to pedophilia victims and counseling -- $2 million was covered by insurance; $5.5 million in all."

"The bishop had a discretionary account, linked to the consolidated account," Dillon continued. This system, the brainchild of Keys, consolidated funds from more than 40 parishes in a single bank account, to which the bishop had access. "The bishop wrote checks on it. Last year alone, he wrote checks in excess of $970,000." The audience gasped at this. "A total of $2 million went through the bishop's discretionary account."

The roll call continued, like the sad courtroom biography of a bankruptcy. The priests' retirement fund, $2.5 million, gone; $790,000 in cemetery funds borrowed and not paid back. Even the dead have been ripped off.

What looms ahead, Dillon concluded, is a capital campaign to raise money to repay the loans from other dioceses, with a goal of $15 million. Dillon's tone and posture changed from cool appraising banker to impassioned Catholic layman. "There is no 'we' and 'they' anymore. The people who created this are no longer in control of the finances of this diocese. The laity's voice will be heard. We will need the efforts of everybody. We are the 'we.' We are the body of Christ."

How aware was Ziemann of what he was doing? A friend of mine, a lawyer who has represented clients accused of misappropriating money, says they always insist it was borrowing, a temporary use of funds they fully intended to pay back.

What did the bishop tell himself? How did he justify to his own conscience what was happening? "I don't know what it was," Brenkle told me, "a need to be loved, maybe." Or perhaps his family heritage: Ziemann comes from one of the most prominent Catholic families in Southern California, a heritage of papal knighthoods and Pasadena's Millionaires Row. For the important things -- education, the church, good works -- money can always be found.

Ziemann worked out of an office that was a converted garage, drove himself around in an Oldsmobile Cutlass, spoke fluent Spanish, would show up wherever people requested him and was undemanding of ecclesiastical ring-kissing or ass-kissing. And he drove his diocese into financial ruin. My kingdom is not of this world. Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's. Money is not a problem when you have contempt for it. It's easy to give away when it's not yours.

As Brenkle and Dillon laid out the financial sins of what that night seemed like the world's largest dysfunctional family, its sons and daughters were lining up behind microphones, waiting for a chance to speak. Some had been waiting years for this: The church that would not listen had promised that they would at last be heard, in public. The line stretched beyond each mike all the way up both aisles, to the standees lining the walls.

The first speaker was a woman, an abuse survivor, probably in her early 30s, heavy-set, round-shouldered as if under a burden of indignation and grief. In a voice thick with anger, moist with emotion, she asked "why this diocese acts with threats, oppression and condescending replies in response to a person who has been abused by a priest. The reality is that the priest-perpetrators are not blamed, the victims are."

There was silence at the public enunciation of a painful truth. According to Richard Sipe, the Johns Hopkins therapist and former Benedictine priest whose Sipe Report is the most thorough study on the subject, the church has typically taken three steps when confronted with abuse allegations: First, leaders try to avoid a public scandal. Then the priest is removed, and third, the diocese in question will find therapy for the priest. Consideration for the victims has come only after a chain of successful lawsuits.

In the last two decades, the Catholic Church and its insurers in North America have paid out over a $1 billion in settlements to victims of clergy abuse, and some of the clerical responses have been appalling. Children have been characterized as seducers, their sufferings dismissed as harmless maturing experiences, their parents blamed for not keeping closer track of their kids.

In what has become a stock response to each new incident, church spokesmen profess shock, urge forgiveness for the all-too-human sinfulness of the accused priest and urge Catholics not to lose their faith. The accusers are often humiliated by lawyers. Up to now, there has never been an admission of wrongdoing or an apology from the church. There are sound legal reasons for this. It is also a moral outrage.

"Church leaders," the woman testified, "are ruled by fear. A priest said to me, 'Ignorance is bliss.' I say, knowledge is power."

There was thunderous applause at this.

A Latino man, indignant, stood at the mike and demanded, "These people have to come back and answer for their deeds! You didn't find them out!"

Another indignant parishioner asked why the Vatican won't help the diocese out financially, since Ziemann was the pope's appointee. The beleaguered Brenkle said he couldn't imagine that Rome would come to the financial rescue of a diocese in wealthy Northern California. "They have much more desperate situations on their hands," he noted.

That worked to calm the crowd, as people realized their diocese has no monopoly on human anguish.

Asked when and how a new bishop would be chosen, Brenkle could only say one thing with certainty. "The next bishop," he told the audience, "definitely won't be chosen by the cardinal in Los Angeles."

Another woman in her 30s, chunky and depressed, stood at the mike. "No one, no priest, has ever said, 'We are sorry, we are responsible for the way you can't walk into a church anymore.' All I want is my damn therapy being paid for. It's done some good, or else I'd never be able to come here and say this. Maybe, someday, I'll be able to go to church again."

Brenkle, shaken, grew even more soft-spoken. "It's trite to say this, but I am sorry. I truly am, for what you've suffered. And for the others who have suffered too."

"The first seminary had the greatest teacher of all. There were 12 seminarians. Two of them failed their teacher. One of them, Peter, came back. The other, Judas, hanged himself. One in six. We all have terrible choices to make."

The town meeting, scheduled for an hour and a half, had lasted three. The crowded gym was stifling on a cold night. The audience stood and drifted off into the night, into clear air, high from the bracing experience of a non-hierarchical church: scruffy, teeming, messy, democratic. A church that is changing, whether it wants to or not.

The parish where this current scandal began, St. Mary of the Angels in Ukiah, now has a lay pastor, a woman. The priest in charge, burned out by the scandal and its aftermath, has resigned. The parish in Eureka that continuously hemorrhaged money is now operating independently of the diocese. And most recently, through Brenkle, the church has apologized for wrongdoings it attempted to ignore before.

What no appeals to conscience, scripture, reason and logic could change, necessity is turning into a fait accompli. The church of pay, pray and obey is gone from this part of the country, and all the thundering edicts of aging patriarchs will not bring it back.

The Catholic Church is being revolutionized, one person at a time.

By John van der Zee

John van der Zee is writing a book on the Diocese of Santa Rosa scandals.

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Catholicism Crime Religion Sexual Abuse