The night of Jan. 7, 2011, officials with the Diocese of Monterey notified Fr. Edward Fitz-Henry that he was being investigated for alleged sexual misconduct. Attorney Susan Mayer and Tom Riordan, vicar for temporalities and administration and the finance officer for the diocese, visited with Fitz-Henry for about 20 minutes in the living room of his home, the rectory at Old Mission San Juan Bautista.
Fitz-Henry left early the next morning for a temporary stay at Mission San Antonio in Jolon, a remote location on Fort Hunter Liggett. Then began a series of moves as he stayed with friends and relatives in Paso Robles, North Monterey County, Hollister.
He thought it was a temporary suspension, but as events unfolded, it became clear he would never again return to the Catholic Church as a priest. He wound up suing the diocese himself, and as part of a settlement he agreed to be laicized, or give up his powers to operate as a priest.
Since that Jan. 7, 2011 meeting, Fitz-Henry had declined media interviews. All questions have gone through his attorney, Daniel De Vries.
Fitz-Henry agreed to speak to the Weekly for our Oct. 29, 2015 cover story about his case, the first time he granted an interview since the events unfolded that would lead to his removal from the church.
Editor Mary Duan, Assistant Editor Sara Rubin and Monterey County Weekly Founder & CEO Bradley Zeve met with Fitz-Henry and De Vries Oct. 27 at De Vries’ San Juan Bautista law office for about 90 minutes.
The former priest, a Dublin, Ireland native, is now living in Hollister. At 57, he’s now spent more of his life in the U.S. than Ireland, but still speaks with an Irish lilt.
An edited transcript of our full Q&A follows below.
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Weekly: What are you doing now?
Fitz-Henry: I’m just living at home, and enjoying early retirement from ministry. Enforced early retirement; I’d much prefer to be in ministry.
I get to spend a lot of time reading visiting with friends and traveling [to visit my siblings in Ireland].
Do you still go to church?
Occasionally. It’s a bit hard, especially within my own diocese where I know everybody. You look at the priest on the altar and think, “I could do that better.”
Do you still see former parishioners?
Parishioners are a substitute family. That’s why the heartache is just so great.
I meet with friends and join with them for dinners; I’m not a very good cook. People who are supportive will express that, which is nice. They are very caring and loving.
You have to understand when this happens, it’s like the dark night of the soul: You’re ministering and everything is going well. Then your own diocese doesn’t support you, doesn’t back you up, and even in the legal case doesn’t want to be there – to have the people you’ve ministered to be so sweet and caring, it was wonderful.
Tell us what happened leading up to your suspension from ministry in 2011.
[Fitz-Henry describes John Doe’s troubled history, including a recent no-contest plea to charges of impersonating a police officer, and a shouting confrontation the two of them had in front of the church.]
When Susan Mayer and Tom Riordan came to see me, they said there was allegation against me. They told me the person’s name and I said, “That’s easy to know why: We won’t have a problem with this.” I really thought, at that moment, this was like a revenge thing.
I was devastated, but at the same time, I thought, they can’t possibly believe this, because of this person’s background.
Then they said, “You need to leave the parish, tonight.” I said, “No, maybe tomorrow.”
I had to vacate the parish, leave everything behind, from my residence at the mission where I’d lived for 15, 16 years.
I went to Mission San Antonio in the middle of a military base. You’re removed and isolated. It was just a horrible experience, not just emotionally, but physically. I lost a ton of weight.
When did you realize the diocese was not on your team?
I got the impression, right from the beginning it was not going to be the diocese and me fighting this false allegation. They were going to do their thing. At one stage, I said to [diocese attorney] Susan Mayer – as I’m talking to a lawyer – “Do I need to get a lawyer?”
It was, take care of yourself, we’re not doing it. From that moment, there was an adversarial tenor. I had to get a criminal lawyer, and a civil lawyer.
On the other hand, the bishop was very loving and hugging, saying, “I love you, you’re a great priest, you’re a good guy,” but in reality that was never expressed in the case.
What was your relationship like with Bishop Richard Garcia?
The bishop is my spiritual father, canonically. We work with him, not just for him in ministry.
I knew the faces, names of everybody I was dealing with [in diocese administration]. It wasn’t a faceless bureaucracy, which made it worse.
Do you view Garcia as a good spiritual father?
(Pauses) It’s a little bit like the pope is CEO, the bishop is like the branch manager, and we’re like the office people. Usually you don’t want to hear from your branch manager, or there might be something wrong.
On a one-to-one basis, we were fine. But usually you didn’t hear from him, you heard from people who worked for him.
I met the bishop, I’ll never forget it, in Watsonville [following the allegations in 2011]. He couldn’t get the right keys, so we sat on the steps [of a building] on Route 129, talking about what was going on. That was my primary conversation with the bishop.
He verbalized that he was so sorry, he loved me, but he was not making any statement that he was going to support or defend.
Did anyone at the diocese ever ask you what happened?
No. They just said, this was an allegation and you have to be removed.
Reliving that whole thing makes me sick.
We understand the exact terms of your settlement with the diocese are confidential, but is it enough for you to live on?
I need to get a job. The difficulty for me with this hovering around is, where do you go? Google your name and… all that comes up.
Instead of it being me saying, “We were sued and we won; we sued the diocese and we won; we were investigated criminally and nothing happened” – instead of all that, there’s this cloud.
The diocese agreed to settle with John Doe and paid him $500,000; he then dismissed the case. You were a party to that settlement.
[John Doe] made an allegation that was absolutely wrong, it was a lie. He basically destroyed my life, my ministry. My desire was, let’s challenge him in court. My feeling was that we would have prevailed. Deciding to settle took away that avenue.
The diocese didn’t give me my chance to have a day in court; I really wanted my day in court.
The other side of this is decades of revelations of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy that diocesan officials ignored, or worse, systematically covered up. What should the diocese have done?
Can you see that the pendulum can swing too far the other way, to them not being responsible to being hyper-reactive?
[They should] find a middle ground somewhere, where you can assuage the fears of the parishioners, the general public, to the point you don’t denigrate the priest, the rights that he has. Surely, there must be a middle ground.
The allegation that was ultimately used to remove you from ministry was not John Doe’s complaint, but an earlier allegation from 1990, reported to the diocese in 1992. Do you dispute the truth of that allegation too?
Twenty-plus years ago, I was a friend of the family. I was in the parish where the school was, and a teacher said, “This kid needs some extra care or attention.” Through that, I got to meet the family and had absolutely no idea there was anything able to be misconstrued in my association with them, until the bishop at the time, Bishop [Sylvester] Ryan, appointed me as pastor two years later [and the family complained].
My understanding was my friendship had been too close, and they didn’t want me back in that parish to restart that friendship.
That was investigated and the diocese decided what I needed to do was go off to New Mexico to a retreat house [Servants of the Paraclete, known for treating troubled priests for issues ranging from alcoholism to pedophilia].
I spent about three months there. When I came out, I asked, were there any restrictions on my ministry in any way? [Bishop Ryan] said no.
I lived my life as a celibate priest and did my ministry and was very happy for the next 20 years.
Did anything about that experience change how you related to kids and families or parishioners in general?
(Laughs) Sometimes they said, “You’re spending too much time with the older people.” I said, “That’s funny. I’m happy with that.”
I did learn that I never wanted to put myself in a position where someone could misinterpret or misconstrue a friendship with someone around their age [13-15].
The thing I learned is that people can misconstrue, misinterpret. Perhaps because of the climate, the time we’re living in, anything totally innocent can be seen in a bad light.
How can you defend yourself against what’s indefensible? Anybody can say anything about you. I wanted to avoid circumstances that might give rise to that.
That’s how I thought I was living until this came out of nowhere. With [John Doe], I was shocked. The one thing I would refuse to do would be to allow myself in a position where you could be accused, having learned a very hard lesson.
In the transcript of the deposition of Don Cline, the retired Salinas police sergeant who investigated the allegation, he says he believes there are more “potential victims” – as many as four – beyond John Doe and the boy in the 1990 allegation.
That’s totally untrue. There’s no veracity to that whatsoever.
What [Don Cline] believes has got nothing to do with me. Are there names [in his report]?
Then they don’t exist.
But the diocese found enough credibility to the 1990 allegation to use that – and not the allegation John Doe made – to remove you from the priesthood for good.
The only assumption is that they have to justify my laicization. They have their issues, their reasons.
I’m the flotsam and jetsam that’s discarded. So be it for them.
I did nothing to anyone. I can adamantly, honestly state that I have done nothing to anyone that could be misconstrued.
What does it mean that you’re laicized?
Although I’m in good standing as a Catholic, I’m not allowed to minister as a priest.
The church teaches you you’re a priest forever; when you’re ordained, it’s an indelible mark upon your soul. I’ll die a priest, but I won’t be functioning as a priest ever again.
When you get ordained, there’s a big ritual, the bishop lays hands on you, your family is there. It’s like a wedding, but you’re on your own.
After my first mass we had a wonderful reception. I said, I will not do what many brides and grooms do; they don’t get to enjoy the meal.
It’s odd because you get ordained and it’s a big ritual, and after 35 years of priesthood it ends with a letter you get in the mail, signed by some poobah in Rome.
I’ve joined the 1.1 billion Catholics, as opposed to the thousands of priests.
Has this shaken your faith?
Not in God. (Laughs) I love the Episcopalians; I like the fact that they’re more open.
The hardest part is letting go, of this beautiful place, this mission. I was so involved in its restoration and preserving it. I had plans, and all that had to be dropped.
The people are the church, not the building, but when you have something so historic, so fantastic… [They’re doing a] seismic retrofit for $15 million. I got out of that one, but I would have enjoyed the challenge to raise the funds for that.
What advice would you give to someone in a similar position, facing an allegation against them?
I’d tell them to hang in there. If the truth is you’re innocent and you didn’t do anything, then you will survive, you’ll be fine.
What do you hope the diocese takes away from this case?
I hope they learn from this, and how not to behave if there’s any priest with an allegation.