THE BLOG

The Early Days of Clergy Abuse: A San Francisco Story

08/20/2011 11:50 am ET | Updated Oct 20, 2011

Editor's Note: The following is adapted from the author's new book, "The Grace of Everyday Saints: How a Band of Believers Lost Their Church and Found Their Faith," available now.

Early in the spring of 1994, a hard-charging San Francisco lawyer named Robert Bryan hired a private investigator to do some digging into what was happening at the San Francisco Archdiocese. The lawyer, a death-penalty appeals specialist who was converting to Catholicism, had a sense that something was amiss. The archdiocese had announced two months earlier that it needed to close a dozen churches, including St. Brigid, the century-old parish his family attended.

The archdiocese said the closures were necessary because of declining attendance, fewer men entering the priesthood, and aging buildings requiring seismic strengthening since the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989. Parishioners reacted to the news with shock and sadness. Bryan reacted with skepticism. St. Brigid had served Catholics since congregants began arriving in horse-drawn carriages. The church had a dynamic young priest and one of the largest young adult groups in the city. Weekly Mass drew some 1,000 believers and the church had more than $700,000 in its account -- money raised or donated by parishioners.

Bryan soon got his answer. His private investigator informed him that San Francisco police were about to file charges against one of the city's highest ranking priests, Monsignor Patrick O'Shea, a friend and confidant of Archbishop John Quinn's. O'Shea was said to have "done a number" on some boys over a period of years, the investigator said. Bryan picked up the phone -- to call the media and schedule a press conference.

Over the next few months, Bryan, born in Birmingham and reared in the midst of the South's epic civil rights battles, was relentless -- calling on the pope to send an investigator from Rome, demanding a meeting with the archbishop, and doing everything he could to publicize his belief that good churches were being closed to pay for the mistakes of bad priests. Parishioners reacted again with shock and sadness -- this time directed at Bryan.

"Marching around and making these pronouncements is not what we should be doing," said parishioner John Ross. Cradle Catholic Pat Anderson said, "If this is all true -- which it can't be -- how will we ever go to our priest and say, 'Father, I have sinned'?" Eleanor Dignan, who never missed Sunday Mass, simply refused to believe any of the allegations. Lily Wong, the blind spiritual leader of the newly formed Committee to Save St. Brigid, said, "We have to hold onto our faith, now more than ever. This is something that is happening to test us."

Indeed. Parishioners in this corner of San Francisco were facing the closure of something they loved -- their historic church, opened in 1863 when Abraham Lincoln was president and the Civil War was underway. They were grappling with a moral dilemma: How could they fight for their church when, as Catholics, they had always been taught to obey? And now, they were hit with unthinkable reports that priests -- the men they honored as representatives of God -- were far from infallible.

Bryan kept meticulous files, including one on reports of clergy abuse. Two years earlier, in 1992, a priest in Massachusetts had been convicted of sexually abusing a child. Boston's Cardinal Law had condemned the Boston Globe for its reporting of the case. A year earlier, there had been another case in which the Boston archdiocese paid about $40,000 to a man who was alleged to have been raped as a child by a priest named Paul Shanley. Almost a decade earlier, a Reverend Gilbert Gauthe was indicted on multiple counts of molestation in Louisiana, admitting that he molested more than thirty children and youths. In all of the cases, the "transgressions," as they were labeled, were dismissed or denied by church officials. In San Francisco, Archbishop Quinn responded to the allegations with a letter to the Vatican, saying: "Mr. Bryan has been employing a private investigator who has been examining the personal life and history of at least one priest of the archdiocese. Needless to say, this action on Mr. Bryan's part has exemplified total disregard for the basic rights of the priest; it is a violation of his privacy and good reputation."

Then on May 25, 1994, police in San Francisco made an announcement: Monsignor O'Shea, who once headed the diocese's altar boys program, was under investigation for molesting young boys and teenagers over a period of nearly twenty years. He was alleged to have taken boys on weekend trips to Napa, where he let them water-ski and drive his sports car, and offered them booze and boat rides. That wasn't all: Investigators announced they were looking into allegations involving other priests in the area. The archdiocese insisted these cases were anomalies.

For the band from St. Brigid, the spring of 1994 was transformative. On June 30, they were locked out of their church, but refused to give up. Eight years later, in 2002, they followed with seasoned sadness the breakthrough reporting on clergy abuse by the Boston Globe. In 2004, Monsignor O'Shea was finally convicted -- of embezzling about $200,000 from the church. He was sentenced to time served, and the more than 200 molestation charges against him were dropped because the statute of limitations had expired. That same year, parishioners from St. Brigid marked their ten-year anniversary of fighting to see St. Brigid reopened. They continued to meet once a week, and their crusade had taken them from their sunlit sanctuary in San Francisco to the halls of the Vatican in Rome. Locked outside of their church, distanced from clergy leaders, they began to make their own small miracles. They found faith on their own terms. Slowly, they forged a family from strangers. Their reverence toward priests was more cautiously given.

Lifelong Catholic Mary Alacia -- she grew up attending St. Brigid, with girls sitting on one side of the aisle and boys on the other -- said revelations of abusive priests made her stop attending Mass regularly. "Our faith became more private after that," said Alacia, who is 90. Joe Dignan, Eleanor Dignan's son and a self-professed "lapsed Catholic," said, "We learned that the gorgeous houses of worship and elaborate traditions celebrated by priests do not hold our faith. We learned during this painful time that faith is something deep inside."

Since 2004, the Archdiocese of San Francisco has paid more than $67 million to settle 100 clergy abuse cases. Nationally, nearly 14,000 molestation claims have been filed against Catholic clergy, and abuse-related costs for the U.S. Church have reached more than $2.3 billion. Hundreds of parishes across the country are being closed and consolidated, due to a number of factors -- including the fallout from the sexual abuse scandal. The struggle for St. Brigid represents the longest parish protest in Catholic America.