Former priest reveals lifetime of abuse and offending

Associated Press/June 5, 2005
By Kim Curtis

San Francisco - Since the sex abuse scandal first rocked the Catholic Church, thousands of priests have been accused of molesting children. Rarely are the lawsuits as revealing as the case of Oliver O'Grady, who admits molesting as many as 25 children while a parish priest in California.

The defrocked Irish priest's abusive childhood, his ill-formed ideas about sexuality, his horrifying methods of grooming children and his quiet demands for help that his diocese largely ignored all come out in a 400-page deposition O'Grady gave to lawyers for one of his many victims.

And while the deposition provides a stunningly frank window into one man's crimes, it also portrays a church that waited eight years to contact police after O'Grady told his bishop about his behavior, seemingly turning a blind eye to the molestations and even promoting him to other posts.

"It does show how complicated and how deep the roots are when you're a serial pedophile," says the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a Dominican priest, lawyer and longtime advocate for sex abuse victims. He said the O'Grady case illustrates "the overall pathology of the clerical culture."

O'Grady, 59, was deported after serving seven years in California's Mule Creek State Prison for molesting two brothers, and has lived quietly since 2001 in Thurles, the Irish village where he began studying for the priesthood as a teenager.

That's where his victims' lawyers tracked him down, recording the deposition over two days earlier this year. O'Grady refused to say whether he abused children before 1971 when he arrived in California, but answered other questions in disturbing detail.

That deposition, filed in Alameda County Superior Court, may have helped persuade the diocese to settle one of the five remaining cases against O'Grady last month, for $3 million. In all, O'Grady's abuse has cost the diocese more than $13 million.

The document also provides ammunition for lawyers seeking other settlements as part of Clergy III, the collection of 160 Northern California civil suits filed when the state temporarily lifted time limits for sex abuse claims.

But Paul Balistracci, lawyer for the Stockton diocese, urged caution in drawing conclusions about church practices from the deposition. He won't defend O'Grady, but said it's important to consider the times and what was known among mental health workers about sexual abuse.

"A child abuser does not operate in the open," he said.

As O'Grady describes it, he's been a child molester nearly all his life, and now wonders "if I even should have been ordained a priest to begin with."

His sister was his first victim. He was 12. She was 9.

His older brother was already was "being sexual" with her, he said, so he "became curious."

Later, the same brother - a seminary student - molested him while wearing his clerical garb.

As an altar boy, O'Grady was molested by a priest in the sacristy after Mass. Then, at 16, he was molested again by another priest.

His father died when he was 6, and his mother taught him nothing about sex. But he was getting an education, of sorts.

"To me, it was not a very pleasant experience on some occasions, but it was a very normal thing," O'Grady says, recalling the sex abuse. "No one ever talked about it. There was nobody you could say anything to anybody about."

He says he never thought of molesting as a crime. He did know it was a sin, though - the church was very clear that "anything to do with sexuality was sinful."

In 1964, O'Grady entered the seminary, and before long became something of an expert at grooming children to be molested. The abuse he suffered in Ireland "subconsciously gave me permission to assume that this kind of behavior was OK, or at least was not inappropriate," he explained.

Still, O'Grady says he did what he could to get help - and absolution. He says he admitted to each act in the confessional, read books about sex addiction, investigated residential treatment facilities and even set up sex addicts' meetings at his church, so he could attend.

Church leaders at the time did little more than recommend counseling and bounce O'Grady from parish to parish. But Balistracci says transfers were common and it remains unknown whether O'Grady's moves were prompted by abuse allegations.

He also says that at the time - long before the Catholic sex abuse scandal broke out in the open in 2002 - counseling was believed to be an appropriate response.

O'Grady arrived in the United States in 1971 and was assigned to a parish in Lodi. He later moved to Sacred Heart parish in Turlock, Presentation parish in Stockton and St. Andrews parish in San Andreas.

With such easy access to children, he said he began abusing almost immediately - his compulsion to gratify his sexual and emotional needs through children was strong.

O'Grady said his typical target was "spontaneous, affectionate, playful. Generally around the age of 10, 11 and who seemed to maybe need somebody to care for him. I'm not saying that he necessarily had family problems, but seemed to identify with me as somebody who he could trust, who he could come to, who was willing to take care of him."

And he didn't limit himself to boys - a fourth of his victims were girls. But he was uninterested in children after puberty. He liked watching them undress and dry off with a towel after swimming. He thought they were flirting. He enjoyed catching glimpses of girls' underpants. He even admits to wearing women's underwear and lingerie in his bedroom in the rectory - he would steal them from church donation boxes.

He says his abuse of children never went beyond touching, but he did have sexual intercourse with adult women - including two mothers of his victims.

O'Grady says his superiors knew he was abusing children as early as 1976 - he told Bishop Merlin Guilfoyle himself about his abuse of a girl, and even wrote a two-page apology to her parents. "I'm sure he agreed with me, that what I was doing was inappropriate," but Guilfoyle, who has since died, did little more than slap his wrist and recommend counseling, O'Grady said.

The counseling lasted about six months - then he was transferred again - and promoted.

"If you were the bishop of Stockton, would you have appointed you as the pastor?" a lawyer asked.

O'Grady answers: "No, I would not."

Balistracci says the diocese was "clearly on notice" about O'Grady's crimes in 1976, and its "response was not effective." But he declined to criticize the bishop's actions.

"We weren't standing there in 1976, but it would certainly be handled differently today," he said. "I think the diocese has made great strides over the years and continues to try and provide a safe environment."

Police were brought in to investigate O'Grady in 1984, but found no evidence of molestation. A psychiatric evaluation found O'Grady to be sexually immature and possibly unfit for the priesthood. Nonetheless, Guilfoyle's successor, the Rev. Roger Mahony - now a cardinal and archbishop of Los Angeles - transferred O'Grady to St. Andrews, in the Sierra foothills.

Mahony has defended his actions in a December deposition and other sworn statements, citing the police probe and saying the psychologist signed off on the transfer.

"The police said nothing happened. Everybody overlooks that," Balistracci said.

O'Grady wasn't arrested until 1993, when, after enduring abuse for more than a decade, the two brothers went to police, convinced that O'Grady had molested their siblings. For many other victims, the statute of limitations had already run out. Some have never come forward.

O'Grady eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 14 years in prison where he was diagnosed as a Mentally Disordered Sex Offender - what California would now classify as a Sexually Violent Predator. If he hadn't been deported, O'Grady might be confined today in a state mental hospital.

In addition to pedophilia, O'Grady said he was diagnosed as an obsessive-compulsive prone to anxiety and depression. He says he hasn't abused any children for 20 years, but refused to let lawyers see his mental health records.

O'Grady lives in a rented two-story home on the outskirts of Thurles, getting by on disability after a heart attack, bypass surgery and pancreatitis. He says he misses being a priest - but wonders whether he ever should have joined the priesthood at all. And while he'd like to apologize to his victims, he's afraid of more lawsuits.

"And there is another feeling," he told the lawyers. "Shame I think is a good word. ... only now, in this time of my life, I am beginning to discover this is a very serious thing because of the consequences."

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