Bishop defends diocese response

Walsh says molestation allegations reported with ‘reasonable speed’

This was the lead story in Sunday’s paper, one of several I wrote while following a clergy sexual abuse case, which might have been one of the biggest stories in Santa Rosa that summer.

By Raquel Maria Dillon | THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Bishop Daniel Walsh, breaking his public silence on the latest allegation of clergy sexual abuse, said Saturday he “acted in good faith and … with reasonable speed to notify authorities.”

In a letter being distributed at services this weekend, Walsh said he didn’t believe the Rev. Xavier Ochoa was a flight risk given his “many loyal supporters in Sonoma County.”

Ochoa, an assistant pastor at St. Francis Solano parish in Sonoma, has been charged with molesting three boys and is believed to have fled to Mexico.

Walsh and other church leaders have been criticized for failing to report Ochoa immediately when he confessed inappropriate behavior with one boy.

In his 1½-page letter, Walsh said he wanted to “set the record straight” and reassure Roman Catholic parishioners of his “zero-tolerance policy for child abuse.”

Walsh also released a chronology showing that church officials were notified of “a sensitive matter” involving Ochoa on April 27, a day earlier than previously known. The bishop met with Ochoa on April 28.

At that meeting, church officials say Ochoa acknowledged inappropriate behavior with a child who attends St. Francis.

He also admitted sexual contact with two boys in Napa and in Mexico, incidents Walsh said the diocese did not know about previously.

Ochoa was suspended.

The next afternoon, a Saturday, Walsh spoke with diocesan attorney Dan Galvin and agreed that Galvin would file a report with Child Protective Services on Monday.

Clergymen are required by state law to report suspicions of child abuse immediately, and the delay prompted criticism from victims’ advocates and the county.

Walsh’s letter said the report was filed with “reasonable speed,” but his spokeswoman acknowledged it could have been delivered sooner.

“Some people did not know that the CPS had a 24-hour hot line and that was a mistake,” diocesan spokeswoman Deidre Frontczak said Friday.

According to the letter, sheriff’s detectives have interviewed Walsh four times. The letter also said deputies asked the diocese on May 5 to delay an announcement about Ochoa’s suspension because of the ongoing investigation.

“I have written to Father Ochoa through his family in Mexico and urged his immediate return to California,” Walsh said in the letter.

A warrant was issued Thursday for Ochoa’s arrest.

Bishop’s letter studied

During a Saturday afternoon Mass at St. Eugene Cathedral in Santa Rosa, some parishioners studied the letter tucked into the parish bulletin.

Afterward, usher Jim Brant, a member of St. Eugene’s since 1950, said the bishop is “doing fine. He has his problems with his staff, just like any family does sometimes. He’s in a dilemma, I know, but that’s not a reason to turn away from a religion.”

“We pray for those who have been afflicted by these unfortunate events,” said Asterita Machado. “We’re trying to move on. It’s a big organization and we can’t please everyone.”

Diocesan officials have not returned calls for comment over the past week, and most pastors and parish staff have been reluctant to speak to reporters about Ochoa.

Some rank-and-file Catholics are supportive but others are openly unhappy about a new sex scandal in a diocese that already had seen 16 priests accused of misconduct and spent almost $20 million on legal settlements.

“We wanted to believe the bishop when he said this was behind us,” said Nora Ernst, a parishioner at St. John’s parish.

Ernst said many Catholics are concerned about the diocese’s financial health. Some dioceses have declared bankruptcy because of large settlements in clergy-abuse lawsuits and dwindling contributions from the people in the pews.

“Other dioceses are just being bled to death and we’re afraid it’s going to happen here,” she said. “That’s why people are afraid to speak out. This is our money and we contributed to make up for this shortfall.”

As the scope of the Ochoa case grew from one victim to three, and from a striptease to sexual contact, local Catholics were increasingly worried about the long-term impact on the diocese.

Some parishioners defended the bishop’s actions while condemning Ochoa’s behavior.

“It’s heinous. It casts a pall on his fellow priests and the entire church,” said Frank Siroky, a psychologist who helped draft the diocese’s sexual misconduct prevention and education program. “If there was a delay in reporting this, it can probably be chalked up to an administrative problem.”

JoAnn Consiglieri, a therapist who also worked on the policy, said the fault lies with Walsh and other church leaders, such as the Rev. Daniel Whelton, the diocesan vicar who made the initial contact with Walsh on April 27 and wrote a follow-up memo detailing Ochoa’s inappropriate contact with a 12-year-old boy.

‘Too many secrets’

“I don’t think the hierarchy gets it because there are too many secrets,” Consiglieri said. “It’s not the end. What’s different is that now things are going to come out.”

At St. Francis Solano, many non-Latino parishioners said they barely knew Ochoa, whose first language is Spanish. But among Spanish-speakers, the focus of his ministry for more than 15 years, he was well-known and quite popular.

“He was not only the priest who baptized our kids, he was part of the family, too,” said Martha Leticia Valencia, a Santa Rosa tax preparer who used to take her family to Mass in Windsor or Cotati when Ochoa was at parishes there.

The case has tested her faith, she said, but her family will continue to attend church and donate to the local parish.

“I go to church because it’s something my parents taught me and because I believe in God,” she said. “I don’t have a lot of faith in the bishop. We don’t know who to trust anymore; they’re not even doing their jobs.”

Luis Leon, a professor of religion and Chicano studies at UC Berkeley, said Mexican Catholics aren’t likely to leave the flock. But another case of clergy sexual abuse will be fodder for evangelical Protestant churches that already are making inroads in many Spanish-speaking communities.

Many Mexican immigrant families turn to their local pastor for advice, Leon said, and they are more likely to forgive.

“They don’t have a tradition of holding them up to lofty standards. They think of them just as men and don’t expect them to be immune from temptation because they wear a collar.”

Eager to move on

Many lay leaders said they were eager to move beyond the latest scandal.

“We’ve been there and done that, and everyone feels horrible,” said Yvette Falandi, chairwoman of the executive committee of the diocesan pastoral council. “Here we go again. Their shoulders sag.”

She said another case of clergy sexual abuse could discourage young men from entering the priesthood just as the diocese is facing a shortage of priests.

“Ochoa hasn’t helped us a bit,” Falandi said.

Across the country, aging Catholic priests are retiring. In the Santa Rosa Diocese, half of the priests will retire in the next 10 years and many already minister to multiple parishes.

“The poor guy is in a terrible spot,” Falandi said, referring to Walsh, who arrived six years ago in the midst of financial and sexual scandals. “He inherited this appalling mess with the priests and an outfit (that was) $16 million in the hole.”