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Trail of Abuse Leads to Seminary

St. John's in Camarillo fielded a disproportionate number of alleged molesters, records show, in some cases up to a third of the graduating class.

November 17, 2005|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer

Any examination of the sexual abuse crisis afflicting the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles leads inevitably to a bell-towered campus in the rolling hills of Camarillo: St. John's Seminary.

The 66-year-old institution has trained hundreds of clerics for the archdiocese and smaller jurisdictions across Southern California and beyond. It is the alma mater of Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, Diocese of Orange Bishop Tod Brown and other prominent prelates. Former San Francisco Archbishop William Levada, now the Vatican's chief enforcer of doctrine, taught at the school.

But St. John's, the only seminary operated by the archdiocese, also has produced a disproportionate number of alleged sexual abusers as it prepared men for a life of ministry and celibacy, records show.

About 10% of St. John's graduates reported to have been ordained in the Los Angeles Archdiocese since 1950 -- 65 of roughly 625 -- have been accused of molesting minors, according to a review of ordination announcements, lawsuits, published reports and the archdiocese's 2004 list of alleged abusers. In two classes -- 1966 and 1972 -- a third of the graduates were later accused of molestation.

The St. John's figures are much higher than the nationwide rate of alleged molesters in the American priesthood, as calculated by a church-commissioned survey. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice study found that 4% of priests and deacons between 1950 and 2002 have been accused of abuse.

"The numbers get scary," said Patrick Wall, a former monk who works for an Orange County law firm that represents alleged abuse victims suing the church, including about 100 who have accused St. John's graduates. "I don't think it's coincidental."

Archdiocese officials deny that the seminary was in any way responsible.

Spokesman Tod Tamberg blamed intense publicity over sexual abuse in the church for the higher rate of accusations involving St. John's graduates, and noted that a California law temporarily lifting the statute of limitations for molestation lawsuits brought a flood of allegations against Los Angeles priests.

But J. Michael Hennigan, a lawyer for the archdiocese, conceded that exaggerated claims alone cannot account for the large numbers of alleged abusers in some graduating classes.

"There were a couple of years at that seminary where lightning struck," Hennigan said. "I doubt we'll ever figure out why."

Several former students recall a licentious atmosphere at St. John's that might have accommodated a range of sexual behavior, especially in the years before the 1990s.

They say that many classmates routinely broke their celibacy vows, that emotionally troubled students were allowed to drift though the seminary, and that administrators either were ignorant about sex on campus or turned a blind eye to it.

Some told of seminarians having sex in St. John's dormitories, bathrooms and orange groves.

"There was an awful lot that was shocking," said Jaime Romo, who lost his passion for the priesthood after three years at St. John's in the early 1980s. Now an education professor at the University of San Diego, a Catholic school, Romo has sued the Los Angeles Archdiocese, accusing the late priest Leland Boyer of molesting him as a teenager.

He remembered a small group of students who dressed in nuns' clothes during his time at St. John's, and others who were "full-blown alcoholics." He said the faculty avoided any talk of sex: "There was no discussion of celibacy."

A number of active priests who attended St. John's said they had never witnessed sexual activity at the seminary, and believed the administration would not have tolerated it. "Could guys have carried on a secret life? Sure," said Leon Hutton, a St. John's history teacher who graduated in 1980. "But it certainly wouldn't have been condoned."

The John Jay survey determined that the quarter-century from 1960 through 1984 was particularly troublesome for alleged abuse by clerics nationwide. At St. John's, about 15% of priests who graduated during that period and served in the Los Angeles Archdiocese were accused of sexual abuse, records show.

Some of the allegations have resulted in criminal convictions or civil settlements. Most are unresolved. The accusations lodged in civil complaints have not been formally denied because the suits are the subject of a court mediation, Hennigan said.

Typically, the suits focus on incidents that allegedly occurred after a priest left the seminary. But in a 2003 suit, Esther Miller alleges that a seminarian sexually abused her at St. John's in the mid-1970s.

Miller, now a human resources manager, accuses former priest Michael Nocita of molesting her when she was 16 and 17 while he was a deacon seminarian assigned to her family's parish in Van Nuys.

The suit, which names the archdiocese rather than Nocita as a defendant, also alleges that St. John's then-rector, John Grindel, once saw Nocita embracing her in his dorm room but did not ask why she was there.

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