SR Bishop Kept Abuse Case Secret
Diocese Confirms Priest, Who Died in 2004, Suspended in 2002 after Allegations

By Martin Espinoza
The Press Democrat
July 21, 2006

Santa Rosa Bishop Daniel Walsh four years ago suspended a priest suspected of abusing a boy decades earlier but kept the information secret from North Coast parishioners.

In a statement issued Thursday, the diocese confirmed Walsh suspended Donald Eagleson, ordained as a priest in Napa in 1985, after learning of abuse allegations. But Walsh did not inform local Roman Catholics of the alleged abuse when he learned of it in 2002 nor of the identity of the priest when a partial settlement was reached in the case in 2005.

Eagleson died of leukemia in 2004.

Walsh, who consistently has refused to answer questions about abuse by the clergy, was in his office Thursday after returning from vacation. He did not respond to requests for interviews about the statement, which was released after media inquiries about the case.

"The diocese expresses its deep concern for the victim and his family and regrets that he was harmed by these heinous acts," said the statement, which is unsigned.

Walsh also did not make himself available to explain why the diocese did not previously make public the abuse allegations. That lack of notification has angered some Catholics seeking an accounting of Eagleson's actions and the response by the diocese.

"Why didn't the diocese notify all these parishes as soon as they got a letter from the victims and instead wait until parishioners started to make this information public," said Hope McNeil, a former longtime Sacred Heart Church parishioner in Eureka, where Eagleson was pastor beginning in 1992.

Eagleson served for 10 years before Walsh removed him from priestly duties.

Eagleson also served in Petaluma and Arcata. But the abuse allegations stem from 1971, when Eagleson, then a Holy Cross brother, taught at Moreau Catholic High School in Hayward.

According to the diocese statement, Walsh was contacted by letter in April 2002 by an adult who said he was sexually abused by Eagleson. Walsh received a second letter from the alleged victim in November 2002. Walsh contacted the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office and put Eagleson on administrative leave, but the statement did not say when Walsh took those actions.

The abuse allegations were made by David Dutra, who in 1971 was a student at Moreau High, part of the Oakland Diocese. In an amended lawsuit filed Sept. 17, 2004, Dutra alleged that "on multiple occasions defendants Donald Eagleson and Gordon Wilcox engaged in intentional, harmful and offensive sexual conduct and committed sexual molestation and abuse."

Wilcox, who like Eagleson is dead, was a priest at the school in the 1970s.

The suit says Dutra, who is in prison after being convicted of murdering his wife in 1983, suffered "emotional distress, physical manifestations of emotional distress, including causing harm and permanent injury and death to others."

Dutra's case was one of 56 clergy sex abuse cases settled by the Oakland Diocese after the state enacted a one-year window in 2003 that allowed to claims previously barred by the statute of limitations.

Child abuse advocates said Thursday's statement by the Santa Rosa Diocese was little more than damage control.

"Bishop Walsh sat on this information until it was clear that it was going to hit the papers," said Greg Bullough, an advocate for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy.

Bullough of Doylestown, Pa., attended Moreau High School. He said he has closely followed the recent reports of the Rev. Xavier Ochoa, the fugitive Sonoma priest accused of sex abuse.

"Clearly (Walsh's) concern is not for Eagleson's victims but rather for his own public relations," Bullough said.

McNeil, the Eureka parishioner, said she hopes something good comes of the diocese statement.

"I'm hoping that because they have released this information anyone that was harmed by Eagleson will realize that their fellow parishioners care and that we offer our love and support in whatever they chose to do," she said.

With the case of Ochoa, the diocese has acknowledged 17 priests who worked in the diocese faced credible allegations of misconduct with minors. But other than Ochoa, the diocese never has publicly identified any accused priest.

In 2004, the diocese fought in court to protect the identities of accused priests as it worked to settle 11 civil cases brought by the victims of sex abuse.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ronald Sabraw ruled in favor of the church, allowing it to maintain confidentiality of records involved in about 160 cases of alleged sexual misconduct by priests in Northern and Central California, including the Oakland case involving Eagleson.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.