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Oakland Diocese releases information on sexual abuse, but victim advocates are skeptical

on April 9, 2019

Fifteen years ago, Dan McNevin and two other men sued the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland, alleging that a priest at a church in Niles had abused them as children. At first, McNevin felt validated. It seemed like he might finally get justice and hold the diocese accountable. As he told the press at the time, going public and confronting what had happened seemed like the only way to move forward. Then the backlash followed.

“I was ridiculed. I was attacked. People wrote letters to editors where they talked about how lovely this priest was and how impossible it was that he had done what I claimed. One letter accused me of just wanting money,” he recalls. Then another victim came forward in his support, making McNevin’s story harder to dismiss.

Today—many years and many clergy abuse scandals later—McNevin feels that some things have changed. “By now, the public no longer reflexively takes the side of the church or of the priests,” McNevin said. Personally, he feels very different, too. “I’m in a very good place now compared to where I used to be. I think it’s a journey, it’s a process and I’m at a point where I feel relieved,” he said. McNevin is now an advocate for abuse victims and an Oakland area leader for the Survivor’s Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP). Helping others get to a point where they feel better is one reason why he went into this line of work.

But he still feels that some things haven’t changed, and that church leaders have not done enough to address the past wrongdoings of abusive clergy members. In February, the Oakland Diocese published a list of 45 religious leaders, including McNevin’s abuser, who have had “credible accusations” of sexual abuse of minors. The list includes the names of 20 diocesan priests, 22 religious order priests, deacons and brothers, and three priests from other dioceses who have worked in the Diocese of Oakland—which covers Alameda and Contra Costa Counties—and have had accusations of sexual abuse of minors that the church deemed credible.

“There has been no credible incident of abuse of a minor by a priest or deacon of the Diocese of Oakland since 1988,” Bishop of Oakland Michael Barber wrote in a statement published with the list. The list is a declaration that “we have nothing to hide,” he added.

“The only acceptable number is ‘zero,’” Barber wrote.

But church observers are divided over whether the publication of the list is enough, and whether it fully represents all allegations of sexual abuse in the diocese.

A diocese spokesperson declined to grant Oakland North an in-person interview with Bishop Barber about the list but agreed to communicate via email. The diocese’s Director of Communication Helen Osman wrote that only priests determined to be “credibly accused” ended up on the list. However, the process for evaluating the accusation is not a legal process, she wrote. As diocese officials stated on their website: “Examples of information used to ascertain credibility include, but are not limited to, admissions by the accused, criminal convictions, other types of legal actions, patterns of conduct, and prior determinations closer to the time of the alleged sexual abuse or the time when the matter was first investigated.”

Osman also suggested contacting Leadership Roundtable, an organization of laity and clergy working to better management, finances, communications, and human resource development in the Catholic Church. Leadership Roundtable CEO Kim Smolik said the organization encourages dioceses to publish their own lists. “It’s a practice that obviously requires a lot of close attention and needs to be very carefully done, but yes, we support that. It does provide transparency,” she said.

Smolik recommends that to reduce the possibility of re-traumatizing abuse survivors, dioceses across the country should coordinate the release of names, because releasing them “can be difficult for survivors to experience over and over and over,” she said. Ideally, the effort would be coordinated nationwide, but, since that can be difficult, even getting regional dioceses to cooperate would be recommended, said Smolik.

Santa Clara University professor of Systematic Theology Paul Crowley also sees the publishing of a list as a sign of increasing transparency. “There’s a genuine desire to come clean and to take whatever consequences there may be,” he said in an interview following a February discussion called “Clergy Sexual Abuse: A West Coast View” at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, where religious leaders had gathered to talk about the issue.

But McNevin feels the list is more of a measure of damage control than an act of transparency. And he points out that other agencies have generated longer lists. One was published in 2018 by Anderson & Associates, a Los Angeles law firm that litigates on behalf of childhood sex abuse survivors. Their list consists of 263 clergy accused of sexual misconduct in the Bay Area; 94 of them in the Diocese of Oakland. Their list was generated after the California legislature opened a one-year period in 2003 for abuse survivors to file retroactive civil claims against clergy or the church, which caused the names of the accused to be made public. However, the report is careful to point out that not all 263 men were found guilty in a court of law; some cases settled, and others were never heard in court. “The allegations should be considered just allegations,” the firm’s staff wrote in their report.

SNAP members are working on an Oakland list that they expect to be even longer by the time they publish it. It will consist of 141 names, said Joey Piscitelli, SNAP’s Northern California branch leader. They collect the names for their list from court records, depositions, media announcements, civil lawsuits and names released by other bishops and orders. Piscitelli said they are compiling the list because he thinks the diocese’s version is “a watered-down, anemic, short list that is an insult to victims of abuse and the public, and is deceitful.”

McNevin also believes that the Oakland Diocese’s list is incomplete. For example, this February, The Mercury News reported that diocese officials had published a news release about placing an Oakland priest on administrative leave following allegations of inappropriate contact with a minor in 2016. But, the paper reported, church officials did not alert the Oakland Police Department about the allegations until five hours after issuing the press release. Later, the diocese announced that the priest had fled the country, as reported in various media outlets. McNevin points out that this priest’s name didn’t make it onto the diocese’s list.

McNevin recalls a similar problem in 2006, when the bishop of a Santa Rosa church dismissed a priest who was accused of abuse, but failed to report the allegations in a timely manner to the police. This priest also fled the country, and remained abroad until his death. “This is the same game plan,” McNevin believes.

And a month after the Oakland Diocese released its list, a new story broke: A priest at a Fremont church was arrested on suspicion of 30 counts of child sex abuse, NBC news reported. In late March, Bishop Barber wrote in a letter to parishioners that the priest has been suspended while the investigation is ongoing.

Crowley agrees that the church’s own list is not enough. Lists and internal investigations will not rebuild public trust, he said, because “even with the best intentions you could have prejudice.” Although in his mind the diocese’s list is an effort to show a good faith effort, “publishing lists is inadequate. It’s not the end of the story,” he said. “It’s not even in some ways the beginning of the story.”

But Osman did not endorse the use of lists generated by other organizations, writing that since the diocese is responsible for Catholic priests who serve in its jurisdiction, “it would be irresponsible for us to rely on outside entities to provide accurate and official explanations of the work of the Diocese. Those outside entities do not have access to the Diocese’s personnel files.”

What McNevin hopes for is a statewide investigation by the California Attorney General. At the end of last year, the Attorney General’s Office announced they are seeking information about abuse by members of the clergy or religious organizations within California and opened up a website with a form for victim complaints.

A spokesperson from the Attorney General’s Office said they are “reviewing the matter,” but will not comment on it in any more detail.

A similar statewide investigation happened in Pennsylvania, and the results were published in a 900-page report by a grand jury in the summer of 2018. It revealed the abuse of about 1,000 kids by 300 priests. It includes stories like one about a priest impregnating and marrying a 17-year-old and divorcing her months later; one about a priest abusing five sisters; and one in which church officials insisted that a 15-year-old victim had seduced his abuser. The report also concluded that abusers would give their favorite boys gold crosses to wear. “They were a signal to other predators that the children had been desensitized to sexual abuse and were optimal targets for further victimization,” the report concluded.

Pennsylvania is a state a third of the size of California, McNevin points out. If crimes in California are investigated the same way they were in Pennsylvania, “We will see the mother of all reports,” he said.

McNevin is concerned that many church members are not stepping forward because young people are not yet ready to speak about their abuse, and some members of minorities may feel pressure to stay silent. He believes that the true number of abuse survivors might be even bigger than anyone imagines, because so far most of the people to step forward are white, older men, whose abuse happened many years ago. But according to the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of Catholics in California are Hispanic. Hispanic people are also the dominant group of undocumented immigrants. (The center estimates that there are about 2.2 million undocumented people in the state.)

During the clergy sexual abuse discussion at Berkeley’s Jesuit School of Theology, Bishop Oscar Cantú of San Jose said one of the things that delights him about his diocese is its cultural diversity. But minority communities, especially the Mexican community, are scarcely represented both in ordained and lay leadership, he said. “There is a reluctance to step forward,” Cantú observed. Since there is a reluctance to take leadership, he fears people also won’t complain. “They’re simply trying to tread water of survival, to make ends meet, to work, to care for their children, to send them to school, to make sure that their family is relatively healthy,” he said. That means that “if there is abuse, there will be a reluctance to come forward,” Cantú continued.

Cantú expressed particular concerns about undocumented people in the US. “We certainly do not feel responsibility to report them to migration authorities, but we do want to report any abuse, so that becomes a challenge,” the bishop said.

McNevin shares that concern. “We have heard from victims who are afraid to tell us who they are. They call us. They say that they have been abused. They are not documented. We want to help them, we give them guidance to get a U visa,” he said, referring to a special visa that can be requested by crime victims who have suffered from mental or physical abuse and who can be helpful to officials investigating those crimes. “But unless we have the name of the priest or their names, we really can’t do much but hear them out and support them,” he continued.

McNevin pointed out that an important way to address these concerns would be for the Attorney General’s investigation to open up a hotline through which undocumented people could safely report abuse without fear of being deported. But a spokesperson from the office said they have not opened up a hotline, and wasn’t able to comment on whether they will.

Bishop Cantú pointed out another significant issue in the discussion: a lack of accountability for bishops. In June, 2002, US bishops released the Charter for Protection of Children and Young people, also called the Dallas Charter. The purpose of this charter was to respond to the clergy sexual abuse scandal revealed by The Boston Globe in 2002. The charter states that there is an obligation for bishops to report misconduct by priests. “When the preliminary investigation of a complaint against a priest or deacon so indicates, the diocesan/eparchial bishop will relieve the alleged offender promptly of his ministerial duties,” it stated.

But the charter does not oblige anyone in the church to report or to investigate when the abuser happens to be a bishop. Cantú said that in the culture of the church, “One bishop does not have authority over another bishop. Only the Holy Father has that.”

Others have tried to hold bishops accountable. The website, run by a non-profit corporation with an aim to collect and publish all publicly-available documents relevant to clergy sexual abuse, has released a list of 101 bishops accused of sexual misconduct worldwide. Forty of them are from the US. And the National Review Board established by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has called to set up a lay-led group that would investigate accusations against bishops.

Many hoped this group would be established at the meeting of bishops that happened in Rome at the end of February, Cantú said. The pope met with bishops’ conferences from all over the world to discuss how to protect minors from clergy sexual abuse. Smolik noted that Pope Francis and the bishops listened to stories from survivors at the start of the meeting, and “it helped them understand the global abuse crisis that the church is facing.”

But instead of creating a new oversight group, the meeting resulted in a guideline that Pope Francis shared at the meeting. It had 21 reflection points, including one that the church should “establish specific protocols for handling accusations against Bishops,” but no more particular commitments regarding this matter.

When asked about the Oakland Diocese’s commitments to improving the situation, Osman wrote that for decades the church has been working to improve its efforts to provide safe environments for children and vulnerable adults, and to prevent abuse. Clergy, lay employees and volunteers must undergo a criminal record check and receive training in recognizing predatory behavior and ensuring safe spaces for kids. This training has to be repeated every three years, she wrote.

But McNevin said that he doesn’t have faith in the church handling allegations on its own. Instead, he hopes that survivors will come forward to authorities. “It’s all an inside game. I have no faith in that. They should just call the police. It’s that simple,” he said.

Those who consider coming forward, he said, often see stories like his own, fear being ridiculed, and decide that they don’t have the strength to go through it. “They don’t realize that keeping it to themselves is preventing themselves from healing,” he said. “I tell people who are calling me, just beginning their personal journeys, that they have to stay with it, because it will feel better.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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