Oakland Catholic diocese hit by new abuse suits

Two teenagers allege youth minister molested them between 2002, 2004

The Daily Review, Oakland/June 23, 2006
By Jason Dearen

Just a year after reaching a $56.4 million settlement with 56 childhood sexual abuse survivors, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland is the target of two more sexual-assault lawsuits.

Unlike many of the previous sexual abuse lawsuits that dealt with cases from decades ago, the new suits were filed by two young women who claim they were molested between 2002 and 2004.

The suits allege that Ray Valero, 33, a volunteer youth minister at St. Catherine's Parish in Martinez, sexually abused and molested the high-school-age girls. The alleged victims' names are being withheld to provide them with anonymity.

Valero is not an ordained priest, but a volunteer who for years worked with youth in the Martinez parish.

The new lawsuits raise questions about the rigor and efficacy of new church policies requiring fingerprinting and background checks on every worker or volunteer who supervises children.

"(The girls were) placed in the care and custody of defendant Valero ... during church, religious and other youth activities resulting from their participation in the St. Catherine's Youth Group and sexually abused and molested while in the care of defendants," the suits state.

The Rev. Mark Wiesner, a diocese spokesman, said Valero has been removed from his position and the diocese has cooperated with investigators. The Contra Costa County district attorney's office is not filing criminal charges.

Wiesner said the church has not determined if Valero fully complied with the diocese's sexual abuse training policy.

"Obviously we still have some more work to do," Wiesner said.

Plaintiff's attorney Rick Simons of Hayward — who also served as lead counsel in last year's landmark abuse survivors' settlement — said the diocese has made important changes to protect children in light of recent scandals, but more needs to be done.

"This shows that even though the Diocese of Oakland has done a substantial amount of work in educating employees and protecting children, there are still people out there who haven't got it yet," Simons said.

Simons said one girl had an ongoing relationship with Valero, who was married with a child at the time. Valero is now divorced, Simons said.

Since the settlement last year, the church has implemented stricter guidelines for all its clergy, workers and volunteers, fingerprinting all workers and volunteers who have jobs involving children.

Workers are trained to recognize abuse, and an independent review board evaluates complaints and advises the bishop.

Contra Costa County Senior Deputy District Attorney Dara Cashman said there is insufficient evidence against Valero for criminal charges to be filed.

"It doesn't mean we didn't think a crime occurred. But in this case it comes down to what she said against what he said," Cashman said.

The new lawsuits stand out because the alleged incidents occurred less than a year after the diocese had hoped to put its troubled past behind it.The allegations come after the church's new policies were in effect.

Terrie Light, regional director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said the recent allegations show that abuse can happen despite screening and fingerprinting.

"The church has unfortunately used its public relations machine to make it seem like all of these cases happened a long time ago and that it doesn't happen now because of the new policies," she said.

"But people can pass through the screening and still be abusers ... people need to mindful of their children's safety."

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