Church knew of pastor's sex past

Records show Oakland diocese was aware of felony history before moving priest to Fremont

Inside Bay Area/February 24, 2005
By Rob Dennis

Fremont -- Diocese of Oakland leaders knew the Rev. James Clark was on probation for a felony sex crime when he was promoted to serve as pastor of a Fremont church where he allegedly molested three altar boys in the 1970s, according to court records. But information about Clark's 1963 arrest and conviction was not included in the personnel file given to attorneys suing the diocese, leading one plaintiff to accuse church officials of covering up the priest's pattern of misconduct.

"It leads one to believe that perhaps the file had been sanitized," said Dan McNevin, who filed a lawsuit along with two other former altar boys of Corpus Christi parish.

They say Clark, who died in 1989, abused them sexually, mentally and emotionally for periods ranging from two years to a decade.

"It appears that virtually since the inception of the diocese (in 1962), church leadership has had a policy of not removing priests guilty of sexual offenses from the ministry," McNevin said.

The Rev. Mark Wiesner, communications director for the diocese, said he could neither con-firm nor deny the details of Clark's move to Corpus Christi because it happened so long ago.

"What I can tell you is, if there was a priest today with the same situation as Father Clark, he would not be installed (in a Diocese knew of priest's felony parish)," Wiesner said.

Wiesner added that he could think of no reason why the information about Clark's conviction would have been excluded from his personnel file, "but the church of 40 years ago acted differently than it does now."

Bishop emeritus John Cummins, who was chancellor of the diocese at the time of Clark's arrest and served as bishop from 1977 to 2003, could not be reached for comment. But McNevin's attorney said Cummins acknowledged in a deposition that he had known about Clark's arrest almost from the beginning.

Clark pleaded guilty to a felony charge of oral copulation in August 1963, when he was 40, after he was arrested with a 19-year-old Aptos man in a Santa Cruz motel, according to court records. At the time, consensual oral copulation was illegal.

When he was arrested, Clark was serving as an associate pastor at St. Paschal parish in Oakland. He was promoted to full pastor and transferred to Corpus Christi in May 1965, as he was reaching the end of his term of probation.

During a deposition last month for the pending Clergy III priest-abuse civil trials, Cummins testified that he and other diocese leaders knew about the Santa Cruz arrest, said attorney Monique Alonso of the San Francisco law firm Gross & Belsky, which represents McNevin and the other former altar boys.

Clark is one of several former Fremont priests accused in the Clergy III lawsuits.

Cummins testified in the deposition that he learned about Clark's arrest during a meeting with then-Bishop Floyd Begin and his assistant, Alonso said.

"It was very evident that the bishop was upset ... that the crime was committed and that the arrest would make it a public issue," Cummins testified.

One of the conditions of Clark's probation was that his bishop be notified of "his problem," according to court records. The judge also ordered him to continue counseling and undergo psychiatric treatment.

"(Diocese leaders) were well aware about what was going on," Alonso said. But when diocese officials gave Clark's personnel file to Gross & Belsky, it contained no reference to the Santa Cruz conviction or any other problems in Clark's past.

"The file was clean as a whistle," Alonso said.

The lawsuit has stirred up emotions at Corpus Christi, where the parish center had been named after Clark upon its completion in 1969.

Thirty-five years later, the current pastor, the Rev. Tim Stier, removed Clark's name from the building, saying he had met with McNevin and believed his accusations. Some former Corpus Christi parishioners, however, refused to believe that Clark had done anything wrong.

McNevin, 45, says he was abused beginning at about age 12, after Clark invited him to answer phones in the parish office.

The other two plaintiffs were not named in the lawsuits.

Clark served at Corpus Christi until 1984.

"Nobody told the people of Niles that they were getting a priest who was still on probation for a sexual-misconduct felony," McNevin said.

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