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What did Bishop Walsh know and when did he report it?
BY SUE ELLIN BROWDERRegister Correspondent
SANTA ROSA, Calif.
— This October, Bishop Daniel Walsh of Santa
Rosa faces jail time.
But last October, Bishop Walsh
was, in his own words, “happy and content.”
Having depended “on God, not on
Dan Walsh,” to restore trust and fiscal stability to a diocese his predecessor
had left shaken by an abuse scandal and $16 million in debt, the bishop had
plenty of reasons to feel blessed.
The local Press Democrat described him as a
“thoroughly trustworthy” and “self-contained” man looking forward to “seven
golden years” before he reached the mandatory retirement age of 75.
That was almost six months before Father Xavier Ochoa, 67, assistant pastor at
St. Francis Solano parish in Sonoma,
admitted in a meeting with the bishop and two other priests that he’d engaged
in sexual misconduct with a 12-year-old boy. He also revealed two prior incidents
in Napa and Mexico. Bishop Walsh’s response was
swift, firm, and decisive.
Following the Church’s policy of
zero tolerance of child sexual abuse, he immediately suspended Father Ochoa,
stripping him of his priestly duties so he could no longer have access to
Following the meeting, however, a tragic series of reporting errors occurred.
By the time the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department “officially” received a
child-abuse report the following Wednesday, Father Ochoa had fled to Mexico, where
he’s believed to be hiding. All this has left the media suggesting that Bishop
Walsh willfully delayed filing the report long enough to allow the disgraced
priest a chance to escape.
The Father Ochoa case has rapidly
become the “Bishop Walsh case,” as the district attorney reviews the actions of
all involved and looks into the possibility of pressing criminal charges for
the delayed report. If charged, Bishop Walsh faces a possible $1,000 fine and
six months in county jail.
The problem with all this is not
that the Press Democrat and many
copycat media have the story completely wrong. The facts reported have been
true — to a point. The problem is that many details the public needs to know to
understand the whole truth have simply been left out.
According to most media accounts,
the bishop “waited three to five days” to report the abuse. Those “three to
five days” are continually lumped together in one tight, unexamined black hole
of time. But exactly what happened during those days? Did Bishop Walsh commit a
crime that deserves punishment?
Or did he and others merely make a
series of mundane human errors anybody could make? It may help to examine the
sequence of events:
• Friday, April 28, 3-3:30 p.m. The bishop’s meeting with Father Ochoa ends.
State penal code 11166 states that mandated reporters of suspected child abuse,
which include the clergy, must notify authorities “immediately” or as soon as
possible by phone and file a written report within 36 hours. The bishop fails
to file an immediate report.
• Saturday, April 29, 1:30 p.m. The bishop reports the abuse by phone to diocesan
attorney Dan Galvin, who is on a layover in Denver International
Airport. It is
permissible under California
law for a mandated reporter to have a designee file the report. Unaware that
Child Protective Services (CPS) has a 24-hour reporting line,
Galvin does not make a phone call. He says he will file a child-abuse report on
Monday morning, in a manner consistent with prior reports. Galvin writes up the
report on his laptop on the way to Washington,
D.C., and sends instructions to
his secretary to fax the report to Child Protective Services when she comes to
work Monday morning.
May 1. Galvin’s secretary calls Child Protective Services to tell them she has
a child-abuse report and to get their address and fax number. Overstressed and underfunded, the organization receives 11,000 phone calls a
year. This is one of them. The CPS employee who answers the phone does not
offer to take the report over the phone, although an initial telephone report
is required by law. Following Child Protective Services’ instructions, Galvin’s
secretary faxes the report at 10:20 a.m. to the attention of “CPS Intake
Rather than cross-reporting the
abuse immediately or as soon as possible to law enforcement, as California
penal code 11165.9 requires, Child Protective Services holds on to the report
until 4 p.m. (after Galvin’s secretary has gone home for the day). CPS worker
Leslie Gelormino then phones the law office and
leaves a voice-mail message saying Child Protective Services only handles
incest cases, and the report needs to be faxed to the Sheriff’s Department at
• Tuesday morning, May 2. Galvin’s secretary retrieves Gelormino’s
voice-mail message. At 10:46 a.m., she faxes the report as instructed to the
Sheriff’s Department at 565-8820. She receives a confirmation on her fax
machine that the report went through. She is unaware that Gelormino
has given her a wrong number. 565-8820 is actually the number for a fax machine
in the Sheriff’s Records Department. The Sexual Assault Unit, which
investigates child-abuse cases, has a different fax machine located in an
entirely different building.
• Wednesday morning, May 3. Julie Sparacio, victim
assistance coordinator at the bishop’s office, hears that a letter will be read
to parishioners in Sonoma
on Sunday, informing them of Father Ochoa’s admission. Worried the child victim
and his family may not have been interviewed yet and could be caught unfairly
off-guard, Sparacio calls Child Protective Services
to find out what’s going on. Gelormino answers the
phone. She says, “I know just what you’re talking about” and indicates she took
the report. She seems oddly insistent that Sparacio
must call the sheriff or police immediately (Gelormino
isn’t sure which).
Sparacio calls Dan Galvin’s office first
to ask if they’ve heard from law enforcement. They haven’t. Galvin’s secretary,
in turn, phones the Sheriff’s Department to see what’s up. She speaks to Judy,
Sgt. Dennis O’Leary’s secretary in the Sexual Assault Unit. Judy gives Galvin’s
secretary yet another fax number — this time for the Sexual Assault Unit. At
10:57 a.m., Galvin’s secretary faxes the report directly to the Sexual Assault
Unit. Shortly thereafter, the investigation begins.
Meanwhile, possibly late Tuesday
night or early Wednesday morning, Father Ochoa flees.
‘Error, Not Crime’
Looking back, the bishop took
about 22 hours to report Father Ochoa’s admission to the diocesan attorney. The
attorney took 45 more hours to report to Child Protective Services. Child
Protective Services delayed the investigation an additional 48 hours by failing
to cross-report to the Sheriff’s Department, as required by law, and by giving
the attorney’s secretary a wrong phone number. The report was lost in the
Records Department to boot.
Now that we know what happened
from Friday to Wednesday, two key questions need to be asked:
• The first question: Does the bishop deserve punishment?
There’s no doubt Bishop Walsh
broke the letter of the law when he failed to report immediately, and he has
publicly apologized for that. In a letter to parishioners read from pulpits
throughout the diocese on Aug. 12-13, the bishop admitted, “I should have acted
immediately and not delayed. For this, I am deeply sorry.” He also said he was
willing to accept any punishment imposed for his mistake.
“The bishop should have reported
sooner. No one disputes that,” said diocesan Director of Communications Deirdre
Frontczak. “But I would put what happened in the
category of ‘error,’ not ‘crime.’”
“It’s plain the bishop’s intent
was to report, and no cover-up occurred,” said Father Bruce Lamb, pastor of St.
Anthony of Padua Church
in Willits, Calif.
As for the charge the bishop
delayed making a report to allow Father Ochoa time to escape, Sparacio says: “The attorney’s office faxed the report to
CPS at 10:20 a.m. on Monday, May 1. Nobody knows for sure when Father Ochoa
left town on his flight to Mexico.
But he is believed to have left late Tuesday evening, May 2, or very early
Wednesday morning, May 3. So how is the bishop responsible for Father Ochoa
If the bishop’s office hadn’t
followed up with two phone calls on Wednesday — one to Child Protective
Services and a second to the attorney’s office — to find out where the
investigation stood, the report might have languished for weeks in the Records
Department. For all anyone knows, it could still be there. Far from obstructing
and delaying justice, the bishop’s office triggered a phone call from the
lawyer’s office that revived an investigation about to die before it even
“Bishop Walsh is a good, honest
man who simply made a human mistake,” Frontczak said.
Also, many in the community are so angry over past sex scandals,
they don’t know a friend when they see one.
• The second question: Why is the Bishop being singled out?
During this mangled reporting
process, several people made mistakes that violated the law. So why does the Sonoma County D.A.’s office refer to this colossal mess on its case-update phone
line as “the Bishop Walsh case?” Why is the bishop being persecuted not just
for his own mistake, but also for everyone else’s?
Mandated reporters in California
include not only the clergy, but people in 37 other walks of life, including
firefighters, teachers, animal-control officers, doctors, marriage counselors,
film processors and dental hygienists.
So, why are only certain sectors
of society mandated to report child abuse? Oddly enough, bartenders, nightclub
owners and abortionists are not mandated reporters.
In all, an estimated 2.5 million
to 3 million mandated reporters now live in California.
How often do all these individuals
get their reports in precisely on time? Nobody knows, because Child Protective
Services doesn’t track this information. But in a letter published Aug. 25 in
the Press Democrat, CPS worker
Elizabeth McKee said that late reports from mandated reporters come in “every
Delayed reporting is common enough
in Santa Rosa
that Child Protective Services has drafted a form letter that’s sent to
mandated reporters who file late, reminding them to get their reports in
sooner. Is delayed reporting a problem only in Sonoma County?
No. A Sacramento County Children’s Coalition report released in March found
that in Sacramento County, “most” mandated reporters are also unclear about the
role of law enforcement in the reporting process and that “many” of them report
late or fail to make the required phone report.
“To prosecute Bishop Walsh would
not constitute justice, unless there is a new policy to prosecute every
mandated reporter suspected of delaying their duty,” McKee wrote.
Will the district attorney press
charges? Why didn’t Child Protective Services cross-report, as required by law?
Whatever happened to that report faxed to the wrong number? Are
any other child-abuse reports buried in the Sheriff’s first-floor Records
Department? If so, how many?
Why hasn’t the Press Democrat reported all the details one needs to understand
the whole truth?
Many questions remain unanswered
in Santa Rosa.
Sue Ellin Browder writes from Willits, California.
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