Problem Priests Were Moved Around, Including to the Bay Area

1 min
Thomas Emens, who was sexually abused by a priest, speaks at a press conference in Los Angeles on Tuesday. Emens is suing all Catholic bishops in California and the Archdiocese of Chicago. (Paulina Velasco/KCRW)

Updated on Oct. 15, 7:00 p.m.

At least three Catholic priests who have been credibly accused of sexually abusing minors are residing in the Bay Area and Northern California, an investigation by KQED has found.

Two of the three priests — Stephen Kain and Joseph Prochnow — were named in civil lawsuits against the Franciscan Order in Santa Barbara, which was settled in 2006 for more than $28 million.

The California Catholic Conference of Bishops, which oversees the state's 12 dioceses, said in a statement that it began implementing reforms "to protect children and young people from abuse" in 2003.

"Every diocese has adopted a 'zero tolerance' standard to make sure no one with a credible accusation of abusing children is allowed to function as a priest," the statement said.

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But a lawsuit filed last week against nearly all of the 12 Catholic bishops and dioceses in California claims that the church continues to conceal information about priests who have credible accusations of sexual misconduct against minors.

The lawsuit was filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court by Thomas Emens, a sexual assault survivor. He claims that the bishops continue to engage in a practice advocates call the "geographic solution." This involves moving problem priests out of one diocese and into another, including those in the Bay Area and Northern California, and not informing the local community.

The Conference of Bishops didn't respond directly to the lawsuit, but in a statement said, "Allegations of abuse have been rare since 2003, responded to and uniformly reported, but we know we can never be complacent. The twelve dioceses of California will never waver in their commitment to protect young people."

Emens' lawsuit comes on the heels of the Pennsylvania grand jury report, which raised anew questions of accountability within the church hierarchy. The report was released in August and is considered to be one of the most comprehensive investigations of church sex abuse in the U.S. The Pennsylvania grand jury found that allegations went back some 70 years and called out more than 300 priests, some of whom are now at the highest levels of leadership.

All the victims "were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institution above all," the grand jury report said.

In the wake of the Pennsylvania grand jury report, survivors and advocates in California have renewed calls for transparency and accountability.

On Monday, the Diocese of San Bernardino, which is east of Los Angeles, released the names of 34 priests who have been credibly accused of child sexual abuse. And in the Bay Area on Monday, the bishop of the Diocese of Oakland, Michael C. Barber, wrote in a blog post he will follow suit within about 45 days.

"I have decided the Diocese of Oakland will release the names of all clergy — diocesan, religious order and extern priests — who have been credibly accused of sexually abusing a minor," Barber wrote on The Catholic Voice, a website published by the Oakland diocese.

But the Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests, or SNAP, claims that the Oakland diocese continues to protect clergy credibly accused of sexually abusing minors.

At a protest in front of the Oakland diocese Thursday, Joey Piscitelli of SNAP said the priest who abused him is working at Don Bosco Hall in Berkeley, which is run by the local Salesian order.

Piscitelli filed a civil lawsuit in 2003 and won after claiming that Father Stephen Whelan abused him when he was a student at Salesian High School in Richmond.

"I would like to see this priest kicked out of ministry, like he should have been when he was found liable for child abuse," Piscitelli said. "According to their own 'zero tolerance' policy, a priest who’s found by a jury trial to be a molester should have been removed and they never did. Instead, they’ve enabled him all these years."

The Oakland diocese said the bishop has no authority to kick Whelan out of the diocese, since he’s not a priest, but working in the school’s back office. The Salesians did not respond to requests for comment.

Problem Priests Moved to Northern California

In addition to the lawsuit, Emens' lawyers Jeff Anderson & Associates released a report containing names of more than 300 clergy it claims were associated with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles who have been accused of sexual misconduct.

Allegations against the priests named in the report are historical, some dating back decades. The names were culled from public records and have been available on sites like Bishop-Accountability.org. Many of the priests were named in the 2007 lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which was settled for $660 million, but the priests weren’t criminally convicted. Some of the clergy named in the report were subject to other civil lawsuits brought by survivors.

KQED found one priest named in the report — Ernest Martinez — living in retirement at Saints Peter and Paul Church in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. He was named in a civil lawsuit alleging child sexual abuse in the 1960s.

Saints Peter and Paul Church is adjoined by Saints Peter and Paul School, a K-8 school.

“There was an accusation against Brother Martinez in 2003. The Salesian Review Board reviewed it and did not determine the accusation to be credible," said Sam Singer, a spokesman for the Salesian Order of California, in an email to KQED. "Brother Martinez is retired, and lives at St. Peter and Paul Church." KQED has requested information on how the allegations were determined to be unsubstantiated by the Salesian Review Board.

Br. Ernest Martinez was included on the list of accused priests in the 2004 "Report to the People of God," a look at more than 70 years of the history of sexual abuse in the LA Archdiocese, issued by Cardinal Roger Mahoney. Br. Martinez is also in the LA Times database of accused priests, having been named in a civil lawsuit.

Two priests named in the report — Kain and Prochnow — were listed as living at the San Damiano Retreat in Danville, according to the Official Catholic Directory in 2015. The directory lists Stephen Kain and "Josef Prochnow" in residence. Prochnow’s first name appears to be different in the directory than in the lawsuits.

The Official Catholic Directory from 2015. lists "in residence" Stephen Kain and Fr. Josef Prochnow at the San Daminao Retreat.
The Official Catholic Directory from 2015. lists "in residence" Stephen Kain and Fr. Josef Prochnow at the San Daminao Retreat. (Polly Styker/KQED)

Established in 1961, the bucolic campus sits atop a hill in the East Bay suburb and is run by Franciscan Friars of the order of Saint Barbara. The retreat's director, Peter Wise, wrote in an email that the two priests have never "reported to me or been part of the staff during my time at San Damiano Retreat." Wise began "helping out" at the retreat in 2017, he said in an email.

But when a reporter called the retreat and asked to speak to one of the priests by name, an operator said, "sure" and patched her through without question. The call went to voicemail. The voice on the message didn't give his name.

Father David Gaa, the provincial minister of the Province of Saint Barbara, said that Prochnow and Kain lived in Northern California but wouldn't confirm their location. Gaa said that they are in their 70s, are constantly monitored and don't work with children.

That response appears to get to the heart of the claims made in Emen's lawsuit, which alleged that church officials don't disclose the locations of clergy known to have had credible accusations of sexual misconduct against minors. KQED sent email requests for comment to the Prochnow, Kain and Martinez through their orders but didn't receive a response from them.

In the lawsuit, Emens is asking for the church to open its archives and make public the names of all priests accused of sexually assaulting children. Many survivors of sexual abuse by priests claim that church officials have never revealed all the priests accused of wrongdoing as recorded in church archives.

Emens' Personal Story

Emens said at a news conference last week that he was abused for two years starting in 1978 when he was a 10-year-old by Monsignor Thomas Joseph Mohan. The priest, who is deceased, arrived at St. Anthony Claret Catholic Church in Anaheim in the early 1970s from Chicago, according to the lawsuit.

"This lawsuit is to find justice — to get the clerics at the top to come clean and tell the truth," Emens said.

The abuse he suffered continues to impact Emens' life, even now, 40 years after it began.

"I struggle with it every day simply because I lost my faith, I lost my virginity, I lost the trust that I had in people that I should have trusted," Emens said. "And that damaged not only myself, but my family."

Emens said Mohan "would visit us a lot, and he would stay for hours. We had him over for dinner. I have photos of him at birthday parties and picnics. So, he was as much a part of our life as say an uncle would be a part of your life."

Emens says his parents trusted Mohan "like I trusted him." Emens left the church at 18 years old, something that he says distanced him from his community of family and friends.

Attorney Jeff Anderson said the goal of the lawsuit is to force the church to reveal the names of all priests accused of child molestation. He said church documents would reveal a strategy among bishops and other officials to protect offending clergy by keeping files under wraps and moving the priests across the country and, in some cases, out of the U.S.

The lawsuit asks a judge "to abate the continuing nuisance" of abuse by ordering each diocese to name all accused priests, detail their history of alleged assault and identify their last known addresses.

The California Catholic Conference of Bishops didn't directly address the lawsuit. But when asked for a response, in a statement it noted the "positive steps taken by California dioceses over the past 15 years to protect children and young people from abuse."

Reforms implemented in 2003 include "fingerprinting and background checks for priests, staff and any volunteers working around children and young people," the statement said.

Every diocese has also instituted programs to train students and staff in identifying and preventing abuse, the group said.

The court filing invokes both public and private statutes of nuisance law in California. Such laws generally involve behavior that negatively affects a community or interferes with the use and enjoyment of private property, said John Nockleby, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

Alleging nuisance violations in relation to past sexual abuse by a single priest is a "creative approach" by Emens' lawyers, said Nockleby, adding that it will be very difficult to prove in court.

Criminal charges are not feasible in this case because they would fall outside California's statute of limitations.

This story has been updated to include a comment from the Salesian Order of California regarding Ernest Martinez.

Reporting from The Associated Press was used in this story.

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