In the Beginning

On Feb. 13, 2011, officials from the Diocese of Monterey stood before parishioners at the end of Sunday morning mass at Madonna del Sasso Church in Salinas and delivered a startling revelation. Their former pastor, a charismatic Irishman named Edward Fitz-Henry, had been removed from his post at the Old Mission San Juan Bautista as police investigated allegations that Fitz-Henry had molested a teenage boy at Madonna del Sasso.

A parishioner alerted the Weekly later that day. The parishioner, who asked not to be named, was dismayed at the allegation yet hopeful the diocese was doing the right thing and acting out of an over-abundance of caution. It was the parishioner’s hope – the hope of most everyone who heard the announcement, the woman said – that an investigation would clear Fitz-Henry’s name and he would be restored as head pastor at San Juan Bautista.

But the situation turned out to be far more complicated than anyone could have anticipated.

On Feb. 1, the alleged victim and his attorney had walked into the Salinas Police Department to talk to detectives and file a complaint. The man, then 21, claimed that beginning in 2005 and over the course of many months, Fitz-Henry molested him at various locations throughout Madonna del Sasso, including in the church sacristy, the room in a church where priests prepare for mass and other ceremonies, and where items used in worship are stored.

The timing meant the victim was in his mid-teens when the alleged abuse started.

About a month earlier, on Jan. 7, 2011, attorneys representing the victim, who was identified in court documents as John “RJ” Doe, sent a letter to the diocese alerting them to Fitz-Henry’s alleged misconduct. The diocese formed an independent review board to look into the allegations.

By Feb. 10, that review board had decided it didn’t find Doe’s allegations credible, but it found evidence Fitz-Henry in 1990 had engaged in misconduct with a young parishioner in Monterey. The church refers to it as a “boundary issue” and said it violated the Roman Catholic Church’s Charter for the Protection of Young People.

On Feb. 15, 2011, Doe and his attorneys sued Fitz-Henry and the diocese.

The case proceeded in a highly acrimonious fashion, beyond the normal adversarial nature of a lawsuit. Doe’s attorneys deposed Fitz-Henry on May 27, 2011, and a small portion of that deposition made it into the court record – and into the pages of the Weekly.

In that deposition, Fitz-Henry acknowledged he had been removed from his job at the Carmel Mission after a family there complained about the priest’s behavior with one of their teenage sons. “They thought I had shown too much affection or interest or friendship towards their son,” Fitz-Henry said in that deposition.

By June 17, 2011, Monterey Superior Court Judge Thomas Wills granted a protective order to Fitz-Henry and the diocese that meant attorneys on both sides could not give copies of documents obtained in discovery to the press and had to file documents under seal. The judge said he would decide if and when to unseal them and make them public.

Things were very quiet for months. Doe’s attorneys deposed Fr. Nicholas Milich on Aug. 22, 2011; Doe had complained to Milich about the alleged sexual abuse in 2010, but Milich failed to report that allegation to superiors, including Bishop Richard Garcia, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Monterey. On Aug. 23, they deposed Agnes Leonardich, the former superintendent of schools for the Monterey Diocese, who had warned a principal in San Luis Obispo (where Fitz-Henry was sent in 1993) to be aware of leaving Fitz-Henry alone with altar boys. And on Aug. 24, 2011, they deposed retired Salinas Police Sgt. Don Cline, whom the diocese hired to lead its independent investigation of Doe’s allegations.

Six months later, in February 2012, the Diocese agreed to pay Doe $500,000 if he agreed to drop the case. Fitz-Henry’s attorney, Daniel De Vries, says he begged them not settle. Meanwhile, Fitz-Henry had sued the diocese in a cross complaint, claiming they failed to protect him from specious allegations. That case continued for a year until he too received a settlement, the amount of which has never been revealed.

The Weekly wanted to know what was in the court documents that had been sealed. We wanted to know why the diocese used every legal means at its disposal to fight sexual abuse allegations and keep information hidden from the public to settle the Doe suit.

On May 21, 2013, the Weekly filed a motion to intervene in the Doe case and get the records unsealed. While Wills agreed with our motion, the diocese appealed his decision to the Sixth District Court of Appeal in San Jose. After more than two years of legal wrangling and great expense to the paper, the appellate court sided with the Weekly on July 31. The decision became final on Sept. 30 and we obtained the depositions and other documents sealed a day later.

Fitz-Henry was permanently stripped of his priestly duties as part of his settlement with the diocese and has never been charged with any crime. He also denies any allegation he behaved inappropriately with children.

Since the Weekly first began its investigation, the diocese has repeatedly argued this is old news, involving just one incident from the 1990s. But as their own investigator reported, there was more than one potential victim, maybe even six, in this heart-wrenching case.

The church fought so hard to keep the details of the Fitz-Henry case from seeing the light of day. Now we know why.

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