Rape trial shocks community
HEALDSBURG – In this bucolic Northern California town, where the Roman Catholic Church stands a few blocks from a grassy square bordered by wine and antique shops, parishioners are reeling from a 20-year-old sex scandal.
The Rev. Don Kimball, who worked at St. John the Baptist Church in the early 1980s, has been on trial for rape and lewd conduct. He is being tried now, more than two decades after the alleged crimes, because of recent changes in state law that extended the statute of limitations for sex crimes involving children under 14.
Kimball’s trial is part of a nationwide purge of decades-old abuse. Pastors in some parts of the country are stepping to the pulpit and vowing the church no longer will brush aside its problem priests, or quietly transfer them to unsuspecting parishes as the Santa Rosa diocese did with Kimball.
The Santa Rosa diocese, in an effort to allay members’ concerns, prepared a written pledge for distribution on Easter Sunday. The diocese pledged to strictly enforce a policy of no tolerance of sexual misconduct by a priest or any church worker.
“We state unequivocally that this diocese is committed to a prompt and decisive course of action in response to any and all such allegations,” the three-page statement said.
But for some parishioners, it’s too little, too late.
“Most intelligent people don’t want the priest or the pope making decisions about how to proceed,” lifelong parishioner Richard Catelli said. “You go to the police immediately. You don’t ask permission from the bishop. You don’t go to Rome. All these procedures are baloney.”
Catelli, 65, is still giving money to St. John’s, but the scandals have made him stop and think.
“It’s hard to give any money because it’s not going where it should go,” he said outside St. John’s before Good Friday services.
Former Santa Rosa bishop John Steinbock testified during Kimball’s trial that he offered Kimball an assignment in a jail or hospital after Kimball admitted fondling six teen-agers. Kimball was suspended when he refused reassignment. He remains a priest, but does not administer the sacraments.
The Rev. Thomas Devereaux, current pastor at St. John’s, says church secrecy and attempts to solve problems internally are things of the past.
“This is an awful thing to have happen in a church,” he said Friday from his parish office. “This is not how clergy should behave. This is not how to build trust.”
Devereaux said he’s been open and honest with his 1,400 parish families since the sex scandals erupted.
“I didn’t hide behind anyone or anything,” he said, adding that he has addressed the topic during his sermons and held meetings after Mass. A few weeks ago, he talked to the parents of his First Communicants about it.
The diocese, which covers six Northern California counties and has spent $7.4 million settling sex abuse claims, has struggled with revelations of priest misconduct that led to one priest’s suicide and imprisonment of another priest who founded a church camp.
In 1999, Catholics were stunned by the resignation of Bishop G. Patrick Ziemann, who admitted having an affair with a former Ukiah priest. In response, a five-member Sensitive Issues Committee was set up and charged with reviewing any new allegation of priest misconduct. No such allegations have surfaced since Ziemann’s resignation.
Devereaux says he’s seen Sunday Mass attendance drop as people become less trusting and more suspicious.
“I’m a little bit leery,” said Tricia Shindledecker, 39, a Healdsburg attorney. “I was brought up Catholic, though, and there’s still a feeling, especially on Good Friday, of healing. Sex abuse is a systemic problem, but it doesn’t push you away from being Catholic, because being Catholic is so much more than that.”
Nearly every churchgoer stopped outside St. John’s on Good Friday believed priests should be allowed to marry.
“They have needs like everybody else,” said 89-year-old Marge Montaldo. “Temptation is terrible. They’re held to a higher standard, but they’re only human. They’re not some alien creatures down here.”
A Gallup Poll released Wednesday found that 72 percent of Catholics believe the church has done a poor job dealing with sex abuse cases. It also found that almost three-fourths of Catholics believe the hierarchy is more concerned with protecting the church’s image than solving the problems of sexual misconduct.
Nevertheless, Jon Jones, a pastoral associate at St. John’s, believes upheaval within the church could have positive effects.
“We have a congregation that’s demanding accountability,” he said. “It helps the congregation achieve a sense of ownership that they are the church. In light of the scandals, we’re all in this together.”