Diocese takes a giant step backward

In an interview almost 2 1/2 years ago, my colleague Guy Kovner asked Santa Rosa, Bishop Daniel Walsh, if the Roman Catholic Church could ever put the scandal of sexually abusive priests behind it.

“I think the people in the pews have already done that,” Walsh responded. “They’re tired of it. But evidently, the media has not gotten tired of it.”

If only it was that simple.

Walsh came to the Diocese of Santa Rosa as a reformer, a solid hand sent here to steady the ship after former Bishop G. Patrick Ziemann left the diocese in a financial mess after his own sex scandal in 1999.

Under Walsh’s leadership, the diocese has acknowledged 17 of its priests have been accused of molest- ing 62 children in the past 40 years. He has been instrumental in settling 10 lawsuits brought by victims of abusive priests, with the diocese paying out more than $11 million in those settlements. He promised to “close the door” on the diocese’s history of turning a blind eye on problem priests.

All of which makes his actions – or, more to the point, inactions – in the latest abuse case so puzzling.

According to authorities, Walsh on April 28 suspended Father Xavier Ochoa after the priest from Sonoma admitted sexual misconduct with a 12-year-old boy. The bishop at the time also knew of earlier “problems” Ochoa had with young boys, and of the priest’s history of alcohol abuse.

But, despite Ochoa’s admissions, neither Walsh nor two other priests at the meeting that day filed a report of the child abuse with authorities, as priests are required to do by state law “immediately or as soon as is practically possible by telephone.”

Instead of calling Child Protective Services, the bishop apparently waited a day and called his lawyer, Dan Galvin. Galvin then waited two days before sending a fax to CPS.

Meanwhile, Ochoa was emptying his apartment across the street from St. Francis Solano church. By the time Sonoma County Sheriff’s detectives got onto the case, Ochoa was on his way to Mexico.

Court records show Ochoa called Father Michael Kelly, the pastor at St. Francis Solano, from San Diego late May 3. He said he was “tired and scared” and he asked Kelly what he should do. “Rest and return to Sonoma,” Kelly advised him.

Forgive me, Fathers, but this is pathetic.

If anyone should be familiar with the laws requiring reporting of child abuse, it is Walsh and Galvin and the priests of the Santa Rosa diocese. If anyone should be outraged that child abuse is still happening in the parishes of the North Coast, it is Walsh and Galvin and the priests of the Santa Rosa diocese. If any insti- tution should be on high alert for crimes committed by its employees against the children in its care, it is the Santa Rosa diocese.

But instead of following the law, instead of reacting with any sense of urgency to Ochoa’s admissions of misconduct with young boys that date back many years, the leaders of the diocese dithered.

And that’s the charitable view.

This, unfortunately, is reminiscent of the diocese in earlier times, when priests who admitted molestation to previous bishops were told, essentially, to “go and sin no more.”

Walsh and Galvin no doubt will argue that the comparison is unfair, because Ochoa, after all, was reported to the authorities and – if he ever comes back – apparently will be prosecuted. Still, his fellow priests treated him with kid gloves when they should have been treating him as a threat to kids.

Rest and return?” Please. Ochoa was known to use “strong language,” according to parishioners. Kelly should have told him to “get your ass back here and face the music.”

Of course, if Walsh had followed the law, Ochoa might never have been able to leave in the first place.

The reformer has regressed.