California Attorney General to Review How State's Roman Catholic Dioceses Report Child Sexual Abuse Allegations

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SAN DIEGO - MARCH 1: Protestors and alleged sexual abuse victims stand outside of The Jacob Weinburg Couthouse during a vigil to bring attention to victims of sexual abuse by religious leaders within the Catholic church on March 1, 2007 in San Diego, California. The San Diego Catholic Diocese has filed for Chapter 11 protection due to lawsuits alleging the sexual abuse of children by priests that dates back decades.  (Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

In a long awaited move, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra will review how the state’s Roman Catholic dioceses handled allegations of child sexual abuse.

The Attorney General sent letters to the state’s 12 Catholic dioceses on Thursday. In the letter, Becerra said his office will review whether the archdiocese adequately reported allegations of sexual misconduct as required by state law. Becerra asked the dioceses to preserve all records relating to child sexual abuse, including those in “secret archives.”

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Joey Piscitelli, from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), welcomes the Attorney General's action. He says asking the diocese to self-report, which has been the protocol until now, hasn't been working.

“That’s why it’s necessary for the Attorney General to take these steps, so they can be investigated more,” Piscitelli said.

Piscitelli says he and other survivors had a meeting with Becerra and district attorneys across the state last fall. He said they were looking for information on bishops who may have covered up sexual abuse allegations. Becerra's office confirmed the meeting but not the details of it.

The State Attorney General's action comes on the heels of a similar action taken by district attorneys in the Central Valley. At least seven county district attorney offices have banded together to audit the Catholic Diocese of Fresno's archive.

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In March, the Fresno Dioceses said it would review its records for cases of possible sexual abuse. In a bid to be more transparent, the dioceses hired Dr. Kathleen McChesney, CEO of Kinsale Management Consulting, to conduct an independent audit of its records.

The Fresno Diocese said it hired McChesney "to ensure that this task is objectively completed in a timely manner."

Dr. McChesney is a former FBI Executive Assistant Director. According to her LinkedIn profile, she also worked at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in the early 2000s, where she served as executive director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection.

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District attorneys remain skeptical of how transparent the process will be. Madera County DA Sally Moreno, who took office in January, said she sped up the timeline to review church records, after recent allegations were made against a longtime Bakersfield priest Monsignor Craig Harrison.

In April, two men accused Harrison of sexual misconduct when they were teenagers in the 1980s and 1990s.

Harrison served as pastor at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Bakersfield for nearly two decades. He is also the chaplain for the Bakersfield Police Department and Kern County Sheriff’s Office.

According to a diocese press release, one man said Harrison had inappropriately touched him when he was between 14 and 16 years old. According to police, the abuse allegedly occurred in Firebaugh, where Harrison worked as a priest from 1992-1999.

Also in April, Father Hector David Mendoza-Vela, the pastor of Corpus Christi Parish in Fremont, told police that he touched the genitals of a teenage boy over his pants at least 20 times over an 18-month period.

At the moment, Becerra's request for church records is voluntary. But Piscitelli hopes that if the churches do not comply, the state Attorney General will subpoena the documents.

"Then we'll see the true magnitude of what was going on in California," he said.

KQED reporters Polly Stryker, Alexandra Hall, and Sara Hossaini contributed information for this story.

 

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