Bishop Apologizes for Delay
Statement Says He Put 'Caution' before 'Right Thing' in Not Reporting Ochoa Immediately
By Martin Espinoza and Raquel Maria Dillon
The Press Democrat
August 13, 2006
Catholic Bishop Daniel Walsh apologized to parishioners Saturday for his delay in reporting alleged sexual abuse by fugitive priest Xavier Ochoa.
In a one-page statement, Walsh said he had put "caution" before "doing the right thing."
"I made an error in judgment by waiting to report Rev. Ochoa's admission," Walsh wrote. "I should have acted immediately, and not delayed. For this I am deeply sorry."
Walsh and other church officials first learned of sexual improprieties committed by Ochoa on April28, but did not notify Child Protective Services until three days later. A day later, church officials reported Ochoa to the Sheriff's Department, delays that have placed the bishop and church officials under criminal investigation.
In his statement, Walsh acknowledged that his public admission could bring criminal charges for violating state mandatory reporting laws for suspected child sexual abuse.
State law requires clergy members and others to report abuse "immediately or as soon as practicably possible by telephone" and to follow up by fax or e-mail within 36 hours.
"As the District Attorney reviews the actions of all involved in this horrible situation, my admission of failing to report the case immediately could cause me to be charged with a misdemeanor having a potential penalty of 6 months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine," wrote Walsh. "If I am found guilty for not taking immediate action, I will accept whatever punishment is imposed."
Critics say the delay may have given Ochoa time to flee. By the time detectives visited Ochoa's apartment on May 4, he was gone and authorities believe he crossed the border into Mexico about two days later.
The apology was distributed at Saturday Mass at parishes throughout the diocese, which stretches from Petaluma to the Oregon border, and will be made available at services today.
At two churches in Santa Rosa, St. Eugene Cathedral and Resurrection Parish, parishioners picked up bulletins with the bishop's statement tucked inside.
Many praised the bishop for being forthright and for taking responsibility for his handling of the Ochoa case and expressed hope that the church could move past the controversy. But some criticized Walsh for taking too long to admit his leadership failure.
"I care about what was in the bishop's heart, and he didn't mean to do anything wrong," said Scott Virgin of Windsor, who attended Mass at St. Eugene's. "There are perverts in every occupation, but the press magnifies it in the church."
Odette Baback of Santa Rosa, who also was at the service, said she was glad to read the apology because it was "honest and it seemed he'd been thinking about it a lot."
"I thought we were all through this stuff," said Barbara Sanders, a 30-year member of Resurrection Parish. "We're all aware that the bishop made a mistake. But he's tried to straighten out the diocese. I hope people accept it so we can move on."
But Anastasio Chavez, another Resurrection parishioner, said the bishop had failed in not immediately reporting Ochoa to authorities and allowing Ochoa to return to Sonoma after he had confessed.
"The bishop is responsible for taking care of his priests," he said. "Mistakes are human, but ultimately he left Ochoa alone."
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, issued a statement critical of the bishop's apology.
"None of those words erase the tremendous harm he's done," said Wayne Presley of Foster City, who said he was abused as a child by a priest in San Francisco.
Walsh's statement came seven weeks after he issued a letter to parishioners -- his first public comment on the Ochoa allegations and his handling of the situation -- saying he had "acted in good faith and ... with reasonable speed to notify authorities."
The bishop has refused interview requests since the Ochoa controversy began, and a diocese spokeswoman said Saturday he would not be available to comment.
Ochoa, 68, is wanted on 10 felony counts, including lewd acts with a child, forcible sodomy and oral copulation that involve three males over a period of at least 15 years.
Authorities believe he left Sonoma County and fled to Mexico several days after his April 28 meeting with Walsh and two other clergy members: Monsignor James Pulskamp, the diocese's vicar general and chancellor; and the Rev. Frank Epperson, Ochoa's fellow priest at St. Francis Solano.
Pulskamp, who is pastor at St. Eugene's, said after Saturday's Mass that the bishop's statement was "very sincere and honest."
He said that after the meeting with Ochoa, he left with the "notion that the bishop would take care of" reporting Ochoa to law enforcement. "What happened after that I don't know. I don't think I did anything wrong."
Epperson, who could not be reached for comment, has not discussed his role in the case.
An investigation into the reporting delay was requested by Sonoma County District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua after he reviewed the initial crime report that led to the felony charges against Ochoa.
Sheriff's Sgt. Dennis O'Leary said Friday that the crime report involving Walsh was nearly complete.
Passalacqua, reached at home Saturday, said he had not had a chance to read the bishop's letter. His office will decide about whether to prosecute after receiving and evaluating the reports from the sheriff's investigation, he said.
The bishop's statement is "completely unrelated to anything pertaining to the district attorney," said diocese spokeswoman Deirdre Frontczak. She said Walsh had written the statement himself and that it was "something the bishop wanted to do."
In what was titled "a candid message," Walsh lamented the damage caused to the church by his delayed reporting.
"We have made great strides in dealing with and combating sexual abuse by church personnel. I cannot let this hard work be spoiled by the actions of one bad priest," wrote Walsh. "And I will not allow my own error to interfere with the path we have taken, and on which we must remain, to create a church community in which we can take pride."
Walsh said he was compelled to admit his error for the sake of the church.
"With this letter," he wrote, "I am choosing to step forward and admit my mistake because not to do so would only compound my original inaction and further tarnish all of our shared efforts over the past six years, in working to eradicate sexual abuse in the Church."
You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or email@example.com and Staff Writer Raquel Maria Dillon at 521-5445 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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