While the Roman Catholic Church's sexual abuse scandal has been widely known and reported on the North Coast going back 25 years, the Santa Rosa Diocese's recent release of a list of 39 accused priests illuminates the systemic nature of the problem. These were not the isolated incidents of a few bad actors. As you'll see in this week's cover story, this was a case of widespread predation by a significant portion of the diocese's clergy that its leaders worked to conceal and allowed to continue with horrendous consequences, especially for Humboldt County families.
While we can all hope the days of the diocese turning an indifferent eye to priests molesting children, and then simply moving them to another community when parishioners refused to do the same are over, it's important to recognize the ripple effect of this abuse continues to sprawl. People's faith has been broken. Lives have been shattered, consuming families and, in turn, communities. Studies have repeatedly shown that sexual abuse perpetrators are more likely than the general population to have experienced sexual abuse themselves as children, meaning some of the church's victims have themselves likely grown up to victimize, continuing a devastating cycle.
There is no salve that can heal this wound, nothing that can stop the ripples. The best we as a community — and the Catholics among us, especially — can hope for is atonement.
The Santa Rosa Diocese took a marked step in that direction this week, releasing the list of the accused and devoting much of the January issue of its newspaper to the subject, with a lengthy apology from Bishop Robert Vasa, an urging for additional victims to come forward and an explanation of the diocese's revised "policy for the protection of children and young people," which makes clear that clergy should be considered mandated reporters and that anyone who hears an abuse allegation should report it to police. While these are all positive steps, they are also woefully inadequate — and decades late. The idea that in 2019 an institution that asks parents to entrust it with their children should be applauded for making clear it has a zero -tolerance policy toward sexual predators would be laughable if it didn't expose the horrid depths from which we have come.
The "transparency" the diocese seems so proud to have finally embraced regarding its accused clergy doesn't go nearly far enough. When police receive a credible allegation regarding the sexual abuse of a child, one of the first questions detectives try to answer is who else did the alleged abuser have access to? Could he or she have abused others?
If the diocese were genuinely serious about finding all of those who suffered at the hands of its priests, it would have released more than the names of the accused. It would have released their photos and their assignment histories, so parishioners would know whether they or their children had come into contact with one of the accused.
And the diocese wouldn't ignore requests — like those from the Journal — to disclose the names of the priests who worked at Camp St. Michael, the Leggett retreat founded in 1969 by Gary Timmons, now a registered sex offender. We know many of Timmons' alleged abuses of 18 children occurred at the camp, and we know another victim told authorities he was sent from the camp on a "special project" that ended with his alleged rape by a priest at St. Bernard Church.
Who else worked at the camp? What priests visited for special assignments or took youth groups there for weekend retreats? We don't know because the diocese refuses to tell us.
As such, we're not ready to accept Vasa's apology, no matter how heartfelt or genuine it might be. And we say that as people who weren't raped in a rectory or fondled at a camp in our youth, people whose children weren't victimized and cast away, who weren't called liars or — possibly worse — believed only to see their rapist or molester given a pension and, later, a glowing obituary.
If the bishop and the church want any chance at our forgiveness — to say nothing of that of the true victims of this decades-long tragedy — they need to lay all their cards on the table, make every effort to find every last victim and truly atone for the wreckage the institution of the Catholic Church has left in its wake.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the Journal's arts and features editor. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill. Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.