Zero Tolerance for Church Not Reporting Abuse
By Hope and Larry McNeil
July 6, 2006
We are writing this opinion column as lifetime Catholics who are sickened and furious with the response of the Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa to the most recent known case of child abuse perpetrated by a priest. The diocese includes Humboldt and Del Norte counties.
According to news reports, on April 27, Xavier Ochoa, then a priest at St. Francis Solano Catholic Church in Sonoma, revealed to a fellow priest, Frank Epperson, that he had committed a sexual crime against a child. Ochoa was charged last week by the Sonoma County DA with 10 felony sex abuse offenses involving three minors. You are probably thinking that he is in the Sonoma County jail, awaiting prosecution. No. His whereabouts are unknown, although it is suspected Ochoa has fled to Mexico. And the Catholic bishop of Santa Rosa is partially to blame for Ochoa's disappearance.
Of course, Bishop Walsh doesn't feel that way. He wrote a letter, dated June 23, to the Catholics of the diocese, to "set the record straight." The letter is available for the public to read at http://www.santarosacatholic.org/bishop/letters/index.html. Unfortunately, the letter only confirms that, once again, the church hierarchy failed to respond appropriately when faced with criminal conduct on the part of one of their own.
The diocese does have an official Sexual Misconduct Policy, which outlines the specific procedures for reporting abuse:
"5.3: Whenever any person who is a mandated reporter has reasonable suspicion to believe that a child ... has been subject to sexual abuse by any personnel ... that person must make an immediate report to the civil authorities and notify the diocesan Victim Assistance Coordinator." (Emphasis added.)
The Appendix of the Policy cites Penal Code section 11166(a), which states that the immediate contact is to be made by phone, followed by a written report within 36 hours.
So what went wrong? Epperson did not phone the sheriff. He contacted Monsignor Whelton, who did not phone the sheriff. According to the bishop's letter, Whelton left a voice mail for Bishop Walsh, who heard the phone message the night of Thursday, April 27. Walsh then received a memo from Whelton the next morning detailing the crime. But the bishop did not call the sheriff. He called Monsignor Pulskamp to come to a meeting that afternoon with Ochoa and Epperson. Ochoa revealed additional crimes at the meeting.
Did anyone call the sheriff? No! What did the bishop do? He called his attorney the next day! And, oh, yes, Walsh "immediately placed him (Ochoa) on administrative leave, removed him from all ministries and removed his ability to function as a priest." The attorney didn't even call the sheriff. He waited until Monday to fax a report to Child Protective Services. On Tuesday the attorney received a voice mail message from CPS that the report needed to go to the sheriff, and CPS provided a fax number. On Wednesday, the attorney found out the sheriff's office didn't have the report, and the attorney faxed it to a different number. The sheriff's detective then called the bishop that same day, but Ochoa was long gone.
In this case there are four mandated reporters, people who are required by law to report suspected sexual abuse of children. Each of these priests had sure knowledge of Ochoa's criminal actions. Epperson, Whelton, Pulskamp and Walsh each had the obligation to phone the sheriff. None of them did. The language of the law is very clear on this point. Phone the civil authorities immediately! Then feel free to contact your supervisor or your attorney.
In his letter the bishop says, "I maintain a zero tolerance policy for child sexual abuse." Well, California has a "zero tolerance" policy for mandated reporters knowing about child sexual abuse and not reporting it properly to the civil authorities. The law provides a penalty for failure to report an incident of child abuse. Failure to report is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months confinement in a county jail or by a fine of $1,000, or by both that fine and punishment. The bishop's attorney reported the crimes eventually, but certainly not in the timely fashion prescribed by law. The attorney wasn't the mandated reporter, and bungled the job besides.
Protecting our children is much more important than protecting the image of the church or any institution. We Catholics are heartsick! We feel desperate and frustrated!
The Sonoma DA could do the Catholic Church, and all of California, a favor by pressing misdemeanor charges against the four priests. These priests are not bad people. But somehow it must be made clear to all mandated reporters that they either report the suspected crime properly, or face civil punishment.
Larry and Hope McNeil, longtime community residents and volunteers, live in Eureka.
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