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Secret files detail clergy abuse at Santa Barbara boarding school

After court battle, papers are released regarding accusations of sexual abuse of children at the Franciscans' St. Anthony Seminary.

May 24, 2012|By Ashley Powers, Los Angeles Times
  • In documents recently posted online, Robert Van Handel describes being molested as a child at St. Anthony's Seminary in Santa Barbara and later molesting other children at the boarding school.
In documents recently posted online, Robert Van Handel describes being… (Associated Press )

Robert Van Handel remembered the boy as about 9 years old, tan, effeminate.

"Now that I think back on it, he was probably the most beautiful child that I molested," Van Handel wrote to a therapist.

Van Handel, a priest who ran a boys choir in Santa Barbara, said he coaxed the boy into posing for nude photographs. He described the experience as "stimulating" in a graphic account of improprieties he said he carried out at a Franciscan boarding school there.

For decades, the now-shuttered St. Anthony's Seminary was awash in dark secrets. A cache of documents obtained in a lawsuit and posted online Wednesday, including Van Handel's so-called sexual autobiography, has begun to shed some light on them.

In what a plaintiffs' attorney said was the largest release of a Roman Catholic religious order's confidential files, the documents outline the abuse that 25 alleged victims said they endured at the hands of nine clergy members. Van Handel is the only one of them who has been criminally convicted.

"This isn't as good as having them listed on the Megan's Law website," said plaintiffs attorney Tim Hale, referring to the online sex offender database. "But it is a vindication of the victims who stepped up."

The files are not part of another ongoing legal battle involving the Los Angeles Archdiocese, which agreed to pay alleged abuse victims $660 million in 2007, but has yet to release priests' internal files.

The Santa Barbara files are a chilling trove of psychological evaluations and other once-secret papers that include accusations — and sometimes admissions — of fondling, masturbation and oral sex with children. One clergy member allegedly checked teenage boys for hernias as an excuse to grope them.

The Franciscans' attorney, Brian Brosnahan, said the files paint a picture of a "severe problem" at St. Anthony's, where most of the abuse occurred, that the Franciscans have since rooted out. He said the order has been more progressive than others in dealing with reports of child sexual abuse.

In the early 1990s, after St. Anthony's closed due to financial problems, the Franciscans set up an independent panel to investigate a raft of molestation accusations. Since then, Brosnahan said, no allegations have been made against the order.

Three of the accused molesters targeted in the lawsuit have died, and Van Handel and three others are no longer members of the clergy, attorneys on both sides said. The remaining two, Mario Cimmarrusti and Samuel Cabot, are still members of the Franciscan order, though Brosnahan said they are no longer in positions where they would interact with children.

The release of the files, now posted on bishopaccountability.org is the result of a lengthy legal battle. After the pervasiveness of sex abuse allegations in the Catholic Church came to light in the early 2000s, California gave childhood molestation victims one year to file lawsuits. The alleged Santa Barbara victims were among those who took their decades-old complaints to court.

In 2006, the Franciscans agreed to pay them $28 million. But defense attorneys balked at a judge's order to release the clergy members' personnel files, arguing that many documents should remain private due to therapist-patient privilege and constitutional issues. The Franciscans fought the decision all the way to the California Supreme Court and lost.

"This is a victory for all of the brave men and women — terribly abused as little boys and little girls — who have forced this historic disclosure," said Bob Eckert, an abuse victim and party to the lawsuit, in the news release.

Eckert was abused by Van Handel, who was convicted of child molestation and sentenced in 1994 to eight years in prison. Van Handel could not be reached for comment.

Of the files released Wednesday, his is among the most unnerving.

He explained how he used his position as choir director to seek out vulnerable-looking children. He touched them inappropriately and photographed them: slathered in oil, bound with rope, in a choir robe in front of a stained glass window. He said he took pictures of the "beautiful child" in the St. Anthony's music room and developed them in the school lab.

In his writings, Van Handel also speculated as to where his sexual urges came from. When he was a 15-year-old student at St. Anthony's, he came down with a fever and spent the night in the infirmary. A priest crept in, pulled down his pants and fondled him.

"While I don't think it is of crucial importance in my life," he wrote, "it is curious that this is nearly the exact activity I would perform ten to fifteen years later."

ashley.powers@latimes.com

Times staff writer Kim Christensen contributed to this report.

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