Newly released documents show the Diocese of San Diego long knew about abusive priests, some of whom were shuffled from parish to parish despite credible complaints against them.
Attorneys for 144 people claiming sex abuse made the papers public Sunday, after a retired San Diego Superior Court judge ruled last week that the previously sealed documents could be released.
The nearly 10,000 pages of records were from the personnel files of 48 priests who were either credibly accused or convicted of sexual abuse, or were named in a civil lawsuit.
The documents detailed one decades-old case in which a priest under police investigation was allowed to leave the U.S. after the diocese intervened.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit settled with the diocese in 2007 for nearly $200 million, but the agreement stipulated that an independent judge would review the sealed personnel records and determine what could be made public.
The files show some church leaders moved priests around or overseas despite credible complaints against them. Some of the moves occurred decades before any allegations became public.
“We encourage all Catholics, all members of the community, to look for these documents,” attorney Anthony DeMarco said at a news conference. “These documents demonstrate years and years and decades of concerted action that has allowed this community’s children to be victimized, and it is not until the community looks at these documents that this cycle is ever going to be ended.”
In a statement Monday, the diocese said it had voluntarily complied with all aspects of the lawsuit settlement reached in 2007.
“It is the ongoing hope of the diocese that all victims will continue on the path toward healing and reconciliation,” the statement said.
The files were released after a three-year legal battle.
At least one of the priests, Gustavo Benson, was still in active ministry in the Diocese of Ensenada in Mexico. The diocese’s website lists Benson as the current treasurer.
Benson, now 64, pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of molesting a 13-year-old boy in 1987 after striking a plea deal. He had been accused of molesting two teens at his home in Barstow and at his cabin in Forest Falls, as well as giving young boys beer and wine coolers.
Benson’s secretary Guadalupe Cochran said Monday the priest was on vacation for two weeks. She said she did not know if he had gone to the United States or was vacationing in Mexico.
Calls to the Archdiocese of Tijuana, which oversees Ensenada, were not immediately returned.
In a 2002 interview with The Press-Enterprise of Riverside, Benson said he ministered to children there but had not done anything inappropriate.
In at least one instance, the newly released files included abuse allegations against the Rev. Luis Eugene de Francisco of Colombia, whose name had not previously surfaced in any lawsuit or criminal case.
Police investigated de Francisco for allegedly abusing children, but the diocese convinced authorities to drop the case if the priest would return immediately to his Colombian diocese and never return to the U.S.
“In early August 1963, father was placed under arrest by the civil police of the city of San Diego for violation of the State Penal Code,” then-Bishop Charles F. Buddy wrote the Colombian bishop in the Diocese of Cali. “At that time, arrangements were made between this chancery and the civil authorities of San Diego in which, if father left the United States with the promise never to return, the charges against father would be set aside by civil law.”
Buddy wrote that de Francisco had crossed the border at Tijuana, Mexico, and was “directed to return directly to the Diocese of Cali.”
DeMarco said the papers in the files were the first time attorneys became aware of de Francisco. No one filed a lawsuit, the church never revealed the complaints, and it’s unclear what happened to the priest or if he is still alive, he said.
Rev. Jose Gonzalez, a spokesman for the Colombian diocese, told the AP that de Francisco did return there but died 20 years ago. He said the diocese would have no further comment.
Church files indicate de Francisco also served in Florida and Texas before arriving in the San Diego diocese, where he worked with migrant workers in the Coachella Valley and Indio about 150 miles southeast of Los Angeles.
“You have won a reputation as a zealous worker and devoted to the poor,” Bishop Buddy wrote about the priest in a December 1962 letter.
“On the other hand, the ‘incidents’ at Indio were more serious than first presented to me, especially inasmuch as the police have made a record of them. You know how word gets around, so that you be certain that the police here will be on your trail. … It will be more prudent and more secure for you to return to your own diocese.”
Attorneys are still trying for the release of an additional 2,000 pages of documents.
It was the most pages of documentation released so far in a U.S. church case, said Terry McKiernan, founder of the website Bishop Accountability.org. The website collects and publishes internal church papers that have been released as the result of litigation on clergy abuse nationwide.
“I think as we absorb this, it will shed a lot of light on these issues. It’s amazingly rich,” McKiernan said. “These documents are providing a window into the California experience that we haven’t had before.”
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