Sacred Monsters: Confronting the culture of sex abuse in the shadow of the Old Mission.

I did a piece for Mission and State about clergy sex abuse in Santa Barbara, CA. As soon as I started working on this a couple years ago I wished I hadn’t. It’s really bleak. It’s a field of profound grief. That said, I met some inspired people who had organized to oppose the church. Some were former priests and nuns. Richard Sipe was amoung them. If things go well, I want to be Richard Sipe when I grow up.

Mission & State was a great example of the value of long form journalism. It worked like charm. A small, stealthy and diverse start-up-news-room confronting the funding fathers of Santa Barbara and their appendages in a way that they really weren’t ready for. It lasted 2 years before the money people had their own uprising and pulled the plug. Success confirmed, I dodged the flames having moved on a few months earlier.

The piece includes 3 videos, lots of words, interactive timeline and a photo gallery. I think it was the first thing I shot on a Canon 5d Mark III. 

The former Benedictine monk, Catholic priest, author and expert on the clergy, celibacy and sex abuse discusses the repercussion and origin of the Catholic Church’s crisis. 

President of discusses Los Angeles archdiocese documents on the Catholic Church clergy sex abuse scandal.

The cofounder of SafeNet talks about being abused by a Franciscan priest at St. Anthony’s Seminary in the ’60s in Santa Barbara

Singing birds and shouting children announce another cacophonous end to a Garden Street Academy school day. A security guard patrols the lush property just behind the Old Mission Santa Barbara as girls and boys in bright colors greet the afternoon following a long day of sitting in hard seats. Though you won’t find any mention of it on the academy’s website, prior to its current incarnation as a “progressive” K-12 private school, the facility was known for almost 100 years as St. Anthony’s Seminary, a vocational high school for boys studying to be priests. The Franciscan Friars Province of Saint Barbara, adherents of the ascetic spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi, ran the seminary. The friars lived across the narrow road at the Old Mission Santa Barbara.The Franciscans originally started St. Anthony’s in 1896 in the Mission’s carpenter shop as a boys’ school called St. Anthony’s Seraphic College. It was intended to be a four-year high school with an optional year for students considering the priesthood to prepare for novitiate. The friars expanded the school in 1898 onto a 12-acre plot just a few hundred feet behind the Mission.St. Anthony’s Seminary held its first classes at the Garden Street property in 1901, with the mission of grooming young men for the clergy, which it did for decades before closing ignominiously in 1987. By then, it had sealed its fate as one of the charter institutions in the Catholic clergy’s emerging sex abuse crisis.With the children now gone for the day, the birds settle back into the tall trees around the Garden Street Academy, and the afternoon turns calm. Across the street, Paul Fericano can be found in a shady patch in the back of the Mission. He is contemplating a large boulder with a bronze plaque on its face and the larger context within which it exists. 

The boulder, a symbol of St. Anthony’s grim legacy, carries talismanic freight for Fericano.Fericano had been a student at St. Anthony’s in the 1960s at the height of the abuse, decades before the scope and extent of its horrors were revealed. Fericano says a Franciscan priest named Mario Cimmarrusti repeatedly assaulted him while he was studying to be a priest himself. Court documents and personnel files released under a judge’s orders in 2012 would eventually depict Cimmarrusti as a particularly prolific perpetrator.“This is where it all began in 1992 and ’93. It all broke here. It was huge,” Fericano says.He is referring to the national reaction when an Independent Board of Inquiry submitted its findings in November 1993 to Father Joseph P. Chinnici, provincial minister of the Province of Saint Barbara. The board, comprised of mental health professionals, lay people and clergy, had convened in January to deal with allegations of rampant abuse of minors by St. Anthony’s clergy during a 23-year span from 1964 to 1987. The board sent letters of inquiry to as many alumni and their families as it could find addresses for. Three hundred men responded.The board’s findings paint a devastating picture. According to the report, a quarter of the 44 St. Anthony’s friars on faculty during this period abused students. In one school year, there were five offenders on staff. The board confirmed that at least 34 students were abused by friars and clergy at St. Anthony’s and the Mission, though it’s impossible to know the exact number—victims typically don’t come forward.What we do know from the Board of Inquiry’s report and court documents related to subsequent lawsuits brought against the Franciscan Friars of the Province of Saint Barbara and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the offenses here were more than enough to put Santa Barbara at the pinnacle of the national clergy sex abuse scandal on a per-capita basis.The friars eventually settled with 25 local plaintiffs in 2006, paying out nearly $28.5 million. In 2007, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles settled with more than 500 plaintiffs for $660 million. As part of the settlements, both entities were ordered to release internal documents related to the abuse charges, including personnel files, which the church fought vehemently.In a June 2007 decision affirming the need for such transparency, Superior Court Judge Peter Lichtman noted that since 1958, investigations had identified 76 cases in which Roman Catholic clergy abused Santa Barbara children, 54 of which were committed by friars at the Mission and St. Anthony’s.

In 2012, the Franciscans finally complied with court orders demanding the release of church files and documents related to the abuse. In 2013, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles followed suit, publishing on its website approximately 12,000 pages of documents, including 83 files related to specific allegations of abuse by priests named in the legal settlements. The document drops came after a six-year campaign of resistance by the church that experts say cost millions of dollars, not to mention it further depleted already diminished reservoirs of goodwill.When news of the long history of abuse at St. Anthony’s first hit in the early ’90s, it didn’t connect directly to allegations swirling around the Los Angeles archdiocese because most people didn’t realize that the friars there operate under its auspices. The connection to Los Angeles would prove closer and more devious as the clergy abuse scandal unfolded.

The internal files and court documents from related lawsuits point to a church hierarchy—including Cardinal Roger Mahony, then-head of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and Bishop Thomas Curry, his former vicar of clergy and the auxiliary bishop of the Santa Barbara Pastoral Region overseeing Santa Barbara and Ventura counties—that was up to its collars in obstructing justice and shielding sex-offending priests. Whenever possible, it seemed Mahony, who would be stripped of official duties, and Curry, who would resign in January 2013, put the needs of the church and its priests ahead of its victims.The paper trail also pieces together a disturbing history of Santa Barbara as not only a place where abuse ran rampant, but where the church hierarchy consistently gave problem priests refuge.The first record of abuse in Santa Barbara dates back to 1936 when Father Owen Da Silva sexually assaulted a freshman at St. Anthony’s. Later, the church hierarchy was aware of a priest named Father Matthew Kelly who is suspected of preying on victims in Santa Barbara since the 1940s. Neighbors at Kelly’s cabin in Santa Ynez reported him to the postmaster after they discovered child pornography spilling from his mailbox. In court documents, victims describe Kelly taking them to his cabin in the woods, plying them with alcohol, molesting and photographing them.Sometime in the 1950s, the San Diego Franciscans made Santa Barbara a dumping ground for sex-offender priests, sending the first of dozens of predatory Franciscans to Santa Barbara followingIn a 1993 sexual deviancy evaluation released by the friars under the 2012 court order, Cimmarrusti, who became the prefect of discipline at St. Anthony’s in 1965 and also ran the infirmary, admitted to abusing 250 boys.their expulsion from the Diocese of San Diego. Between 1936 and 2009, according to lawsuits filed against the Franciscan friars and the Los Angeles archdiocese, at least 44 known predatory priests or brothers were active in Santa Barbara County, 27 of whom were Franciscans.Documents and court records make a strong case that the church knew of predatory priests in San Roque Parish in Santa Barbara, St. Mary’s Seminary in Santa Barbara, Our Lady of Sorrows in Santa Barbara, St. Raphael’s Church in Goleta, Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Montecito, Mission La Purisima Concepción in Lompoc, St. Mary’s Church of the Assumption in Santa Maria and, of course, St. Anthony’s and the Mission. 

The boulder that has Paul Fericano preoccupied on this spring day is the centerpiece of the Solidarity Project, a cenotaph for clergy abuse survivors created by the Mission friars and the survivor advocacy group SafeNet, which Fericano cofounded. It looks like a roadside memorial at the scene of a long-gone-but-not-forgotten crash. Survivors abused by clergy in their youth and their supporters commemorate a journey toward healing by placing mementos and totems on the boulder. A simple, faded wooden bench adorned with a placard remembering Clem Wehe, a favorite St. Anthony’s brother, is part of the memorial.Fericano, in his 60s now, thoughtful and understated in jeans and a faded flannel shirt, shades his eyes as he looks up at the Mission’s façade.“I wanted to be a priest,” he says. “The very top floor was the freshman dormitory. It’s a beautiful place with many, many great memories for a lot of guys and a few horrible memories for others. Others and me.”Fericano’s family was excited about his prospects in the church when he left San Francisco for St. Anthony’s. They didn’t know their 14-year-old son was about to enter a breeding ground for clergy abuse.

St. Anthony’s Seminary was a haven for sexually abusive clergy until it closed in 1987. (Sam Slovick)
St Anthonys

In early October 1965, Father Cimmarrusti initiated Fericano into the society of his victims. “He sort of fancied himself like a doctor,” Fericano remembers. “Some boys would have problems—jock itch, poison oak, whatever. Mario took it upon himself to apply medication. It was his way, an introduction to get to boys he felt were vulnerable. I was one of those boys.”Court documents, personnel files and psychiatric evaluations accuse Cimmarrusti of relentlessly abusing St. Anthony’s boys throughout the 1960s under the pretense of bogus medical exams, subjecting them to masturbation, oral copulation, sodomy and beatings. At one point during a 1993 sexual deviancy evaluation, Cimmarrusti, who became the prefect of discipline at St. Anthony’s in 1965, admitted to abusing 250 boys. The evaluation concluded that Cimmarrusti exhibited 11 of 20 habits or traits common to people considered psychopathic.Cimmarrusti, who also ran the infirmary, invoked his supposed direct connection to God to both threaten and reward his victims. He told them they’d go to hell if they revealed what had happened. In one deposition, a seminarian who was waiting in theparking lot at the time reported hearing wailing coming from the window of Cimmarrusti’s room while Cimmarrusti beat another seminarian. A victim of abuse himself, Cimmarrusti reported being molested when he was 11 by a “retarded man who lived near him.”Another notorious sex abuser and St. Anthony’s friar, Robert Van Handel, served as the Santa Barbara Boys’ Choir director, a position he used to identify potential victims. In church-released documents, Van Handel’s therapist Annette Goodheart concluded it was possible Van Handel abused 150 boys during his 25 years in God’s service. At the urging of his lawyer, Van Handel wrote a harrowing first-person account of his sexual deviancy that provides a rare and haunting look into the mindset of a chronic sex abuser of children.Van Handel did four years in prison for assaulting children. Cimmarrusti was never charged for his abuses but was named in civil lawsuits that paid out millions of dollars to survivors.Before word of trouble at St. Anthony’s started trickling out in the ’90s, the idea that men like Cimmarrusti and Van Handel, who had taken Catholic vows of celibacy, posed sexual threats to children was hard for many of Santa Barbara’s faithful to imagine. The Franciscans, in essence, certified them as sexually safe. The massive court-ordered release of documents related to abuses by friars in Santa Barbara and clergy throughout the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, however, shows the church knew time and again that this was not the case.Curry and his boss Mahony were exposed in memos and emails for enabling sexual predators by shuffling accused priests from parish to parish, concealing their crimes and waiting for the statute of limitations to run out on the offenses for which they were accused.A. W. Richard Sipe, an expert on the church, sex and celibacy, says that a deeper understanding of what happened in Santa Barbara and the Catholic Church in general can be found by looking at the culture of celibacy within the priesthood. Sipe, a former Benedictine monk, Catholic priest and retired clinical mental health counselor, published a study of celibacy in the Catholic Church called A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy. The book is based on 25 years of ethnographic research by him and his wife Marianne Benkert, a psychiatrist and former nun of 20 years. Sipe also co-authored  Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church’s 2,000-Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse.

“This is not just a human nature problem, this is a systemic problem,” Sipe says, “and as long as the Catholic Church exists and operates, regardless of what pope is there, you’re going to have people like Bishop Curry who will look over the facts and say, ‘We have to hide this.’ Curry represents the system.”Sipe says the church attracts young men whose personality traits fit a pattern of “doctrinal rigidity, conformity, obedience and psychosexual immaturity mistaken for purity.” It also creates “a comfortable asylum” for people with unresolved conflicts who don’t want their sexual preferences to be public.“It’s, ‘Don’t tell on me and I won’t tell on you,’” says Sipe.Celibacy was a voluntary ascetic practice until the 11th century. Today, the celibate myth is part of the glue that holds the power structure of the Roman Catholic Church in place. Absolute power over sin and the practice of celibacy is supposedly what elevates Catholic clergy to a place of enhanced spiritual authority: married to God, married to the church—holier than thou.The Adobe Flash Player or an HTML5 supported browser is required for video playback. 

Richard Sipe

“If your whole life is bound by no sex and absolute obedience, that’s not only very hard, I think the combination is absolutely impossible,” says Sipe. “I don’t think people do it. And if you do it, you have to make tremendous compromises.”The Sexual Life of the Clergy, a 1995 book by Spanish journalist Pepe Rodriguez that studies 354 sexually active Roman Catholic priests, found that 21 percent of the priests Rodriguez interviewed got involved with adult men, 14 percent with minor boys and 12 percent with minor girls.In the priestly culture of celibacy, masturbating to pornography or having sex with children carries the same weight: the breaking of the vow of celibacy. This, Sipe says, is a key ingredient in a culture that views a sex-abusing priest primarily as someone whose violation was breaking his vows, rather than breaking laws. Though Mahony and Curry are not accused of sexually abusing children, they are integral to the culture that perpetuated the abuse.“Mahony knew, and Mahony lied. Curry and the Cardinal [Mahony] have donejust as bad and worse. You’ll see it in the documents. They know these cases,” says Sipe. “They know how these kids were sodomized, how many times these kids were sodomized, where they were taken to be abused.”Curry issued a perfunctory online mea culpa in January 2013 shortly before the church documents were released. In terse and lawyer-approved language, the “apology” reads as if it had been written by someone who slept through the 1980s and ’90s, when talk shows featured victims and survivors of every known form of abuse. It feigned naiveté instead of acknowledging the central failing—a church that chose to look at its rampant sex abuse as an issue of its clergy breaking its vows, rather than an issue of its clergy breaking young lives.

Video/Photos by Sam Slovick Edited by Evelyn Cervantes  Music: “L’autre endroit” by Silence Archival footage: “It Takes a Man,” St. Anthony’s.

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