Bishop Jaime Soto reacts to list of clergy accused of sex abuse
More than 40 priests serving the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento were credibly accused of sexually abusing roughly 130 victims in the past 70 years, according to records kept by the church and obtained by The Sacramento Bee.
The release of records once closely guarded by church officials was overseen and ordered by Bishop Jaime Soto, who called the details within church abuse records “gut wrenching,” “sobering” and “repulsive.”
“The issue of sexual abuse in the church haunts me and will haunt me in the future,” Soto said in a Monday interview with The Bee. “This is a story of human sin and human failing.”
Last year, Soto ordered the public release of records which detail how a worldwide sex abuse scandal played out in the Sacramento diocese, which stretches from Vallejo to the Oregon border and serves roughly one million parishioners. Like other Bishops in dioceses across America, Soto was moved to go public as part of a campaign of atonement playing within the Catholic Church across the nation and in some parts of the world.
In November of last year, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced his office was gathering information on clergy sex abuse, calling for victims to submit complaints. It is unclear whether the office will launch a statewide grand jury investigation similar to the explosive Pennsylvania grand jury report released last summer that found Bishops and other church leaders covered up the widespread child sexual abuse of more than 300 priests over a 70-year period.
It has taken church officials in Sacramento several months to comb through the records of roughly 1,500 priests, bishops and deacons who have ministered in the region over the last 70 years. The oldest accusation made public by diocesan officials involved a long deceased Irish-born priest named James Casey, who was ordained in 1933 and served throughout the region before dying in 1992.
Nearly 20 years after his death, a male victim accused Casey of fondling him in the 1950s – when Casey would have been a priest at St. John the Evangelist in the small Siskiyou County city of Dunsmuir.
The most recent accusation was made against a Mexican-born priest named Hector Coria, who was accused of having sexual intercourse with a girl under the age of 18 while Coria served as a priest at St. James Catholic Church in Davis. Coria was dismissed from the priesthood in 2014 and pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, according to diocesan records. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail and probation.
Dozens of accusations
In all, there were credible accusations made against 44 priests and two permanent deacons in the diocese dating back to the 1950s, according to church records. Kevin Eckery, a diocesan spokesman, said the records of the men who have served in the diocese were examined by church officials and former FBI agent Kathleen McChesney.
Now a consultant, McChesney and people working for her conducted forensic examinations of the records. McChesney has previously worked for the US Council of Bishops, and Bishop Soto said he felt confident that McChesney had done an exhaustive and conclusive dive into the darkest chapters of the diocesan history.
The number of priests accused of wrongdoing represents roughly three percent of the men who ministered to Catholics in the Sacramento region in the last 70 years. However, nearly half the victims who made accusations against Sacramento-area priests said they were victimized by three men – Francisco Javier, Mario Blanco and Gerardo Beltran.
Javier was ordained as a priest in Mexico before moving to the Sacramento area in 1978. He served at churches in Rio Vista, Isleton, Walnut Grove and Galt for two years. He returned to Mexico for five years and then returned to the Sacramento area.
By 1989, he was permanently stationed in Sacramento and served at churches in Woodland, Colusa and Williams. The first accusations against Javier were made by multiple accusers in 1995. Javier was accused of sexual touching, fondling and sodomy by the family of a boy under the age of 14. It was one of three separate accusations made against Javier in 1995 that involved boys under the age of 14, records show.
Javier was removed from ministry and fled to Mexico to avoid prosecution, church officials said. Since his alleged flight from justice, the accusations have continued to come in – 24 in total, all involving young male victims. The last one was filed with the diocese in 2018. Javier was dismissed from the priesthood in 2007.
Beltran was accused of preying on 15 minors – boys and girls – between 1982 and 1991. He also allegedly fled to Mexico to avoid prosecution. Soto said the last three Sacramento bishops all attempted to have Mexican church officials return Beltran to Sacramento to face justice. Those requests were ignored, Soto said.
Beltran served under Bishop Francis Quinn, who recently died at the age of 97. Before his death, Quinn told The Bee of his deep regrets for how he mishandled accusations of abuse against priests. Quinn said the church was horrified by these accusations and worked to cover them up. He said he and other Bishops were more concerned about rehabilitating priests than victims. A hugely popular figure, and the oldest Bishop in America when he died in March, Quinn asked the public for forgiveness.
Soto said many of the accusations were centered in rural communities. Many of the accusations in local church files were made in the 1970s, a time before technology shrunk the distance between communities.
“There was a level of connectedness that we have today that didn’t exist then,“ Soto said. “People were isolated. In the case of good priests, they thrived. But for predator priests, this was a recipe for disaster.”
In addition, many of the victims were from humble Latino families where there was greater cultural deference given to priests, Soto said. Even today, Soto said he gets far more questions about the sex abuse scandal from English-speaking parishes than Spanish-speaking ones.
Priests accused in lawsuits
Many of the priests named by the diocese have been the subject of lawsuits.
In one of the diocese’s largest settlements, the church agreed to pay $35 million to 33 victims who accused 10 priests in the Sacramento region of sexual abuse. Blanco and Javier were among those identified.
“This sort of thing should not have happened. It must not happen in the future,” then-Bishop William Weigand said at a news conference at the time. “It is totally contrary to the mission of the church and to the calling of any priest and any other worker in the church.”
Blanco died in 2008. Beltran and Garcia fled to Mexico after police began investigating allegations of abuse.
Another clergyman named in the list who fled to Mexico is former Marysville priest Jose Luis Urbina. Urbina was convicted of sexually molesting Salvador Perez when he was a child in 1989, but skipped bail while awaiting sentencing.
“I can’t hide anymore,” Perez said at a press conference in 2005. “We’re talking about childhood through adolescence. It’s difficult to describe the impact of something like that. You try to survive every day. Some days are good, some not so good.”
Arthur Falvey, a former St. Ignatius Church priest in Sacramento, is accused of repeatedly raping 7-year-old Will Green starting in 1954 over a four-year period.
“I had polio, and I turned to the priest for help, and this happened,” Green told The Bee after the Jesuit religious order settled to pay him $100,000 in 2009.
Of the 46 clergy named, at least 18 have never been publicly accused of sexual abuse in lawsuits, by the diocese or by survivor advocates.
That includes John Dowling, who was accused of sexually abusing four boys between 1954 and 1981 and who last served in Tulelake; John “Casper” Watts, who allegedly sexually touched, fondled and masturbated with four boys in 1972 while periodically filing in at various parishes in Northern California; and William Storan, who allegedly had sexual intercourse with a woman in 1974.
Another former priest not previously accused is Simon Twomey, who retired in 2009 and is accused of abusing a female victim some time between 1975 and 1976. The investigation is currently pending, according to the diocese.
Twomey, who last served at Our Divine Savior Catholic Church in Chico, told the Nevada County Union in 2003 that “’if someone is abused, we have to help them, morally and by law.”
“It’s God’s house, but people do evil acts within the house of God,” Twomey told the newspaper. “The hardest part is building trust.”
While much of the abuse described by the diocese occurred more than three decades ago, some priests abused children as recently as a few years ago. Former Sacramento Catholic priest, Uriel Ojeda, pleaded guilty in 2013 to molesting a 13-year-old girl.
“This whole experience has been gut wrench for me,“ Soto said.
He said working to compile the list has been “sobering, heartbreaking and repulsive but very necessary.”
“It speaks to the cultural pathology of how we allowed this to happen,” he said. “There was no excuse for it.”
Soto said the diocese is exploring providing victims with monetary reparations. When asked what he hoped would come from the public airing of the local church’s darkest secrets, Soto said that was up to the public.
“I need to be haunted by this and not let this go,” he said. “This is a rude reminder to me on remaining vigilant and being clear of who I serve. I serve the Lord Jesus and his people. They have to be first and foremost.”