National Catholic Register


When Justice Goes Awry

What did Bishop Walsh know and when did he report it?


Register Correspondent

September 24-30, 2006 Issue | Posted 9/25/06 at 9:00 AM


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 children.
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 Timeline

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.

• Monday, 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 Workers.”

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 565-8820.

• 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 getting away?”

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 began.

“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 day.”

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.