When Salt Lake City Bishop John Wester takes over as the head of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe this summer, he’ll inherit a flock haunted for decades by allegations of sexual abuse by priests.
During his introduction last week, Wester referred to sex abuse as “a terrible, terrible sin” and called protection of children in the church “more important than anything.”
In the journey that brings him to Santa Fe, Wester climbed the ranks of the Catholic Church. As vicar for clergy in the Archdiocese of San Francisco from 1998 to 2007, he took on duties that involved sorting out the rampant sexual-abuse claims that have rattled the church globally for the past two decades.
The Archdiocese of San Francisco became known for its reform efforts during Wester’s tenure there under then-Archbishop William Levada. It established one of the first boards in the nation where congregation members reviewed sex-abuse claims against priests, and it helped develop the church’s “zero-tolerance” policy in the United States.
Wester played a key role in those efforts. He served as the point of contact for both accusers and the accused throughout the process, and acted as a liaison between them and the review board.
“I dealt with the victims themselves,” Wester, 64, said in a phone interview last week. “I dealt with the priest perpetrators and the rest of the diocese to deal with the crisis and make sure it wouldn’t happen again, to the best of our ability.”
But as Levada ascended to cardinal in 2006 and became the highest-ranking American at the Vatican, leading the pope’s team to investigate priests suspended from ministry because of sex-abuse allegations, his record in San Francisco came under scrutiny. The fallout engulfed Wester.
The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, an organization that tracks sexual abuse by clergy, says Wester in San Francisco served as a cog in a churchwide system of shuttling accused abusers to new destinations that gave them fresh starts and access to potential new victims.
“The leading church officials, bishops, chancellors, vicars of the clergy, routinely transferred known priest pedophiles and child molesters from one parish to another or country to country,” the survivors network said in a written statement to The New Mexican. “Bishop Wester seems to follow the historical pattern of responding to reports of child sex abuse by clergy.”
The group said Wester “failed to act aggressively in kicking out clergy who rape and molest children.”
Joey Piscitelli, who grew up in the Bay Area and was a victim in childhood of sexual abuse by a priest, had numerous face-to-face meetings with Wester about his case. He called Wester a barrier to justice who protected accused abusers from punishment. Piscitelli said Wester tended to claim ignorance when confronted with information about the dark pasts of some priests he was responsible for overseeing.
“His history in San Francisco of refusing to act prudently in removing several accused child molesters is disgraceful, and should act as a warning sign to parents and children in New Mexico,” said Piscitelli, 59.
Wester would not discuss individual abuse victims’ or priests’ cases, but vehemently denied that he or the Archdiocese of San Francisco protected abusers.
“No. That’s completely contrary to my experience,” he said. “We took every case very seriously. We did not enable anybody or look the other way or in any way try to fool anybody. It was completely transparent. We worked very hard to enforce safety.”
“No priest was ever given a pass,” he added. “That never happened.”
Wester said any hint of mistreatment by a priest, past or present, triggered swift action by the diocese and its review board of lay people that decided what should — or shouldn’t — be done next.
“If we were going to err, we would err on the side of caution,” Wester said.
Piscitelli pointed to several specific instances that he says contradict Wester’s denial. One directly involved Piscitelli. In that case, he said the diocese and Wester disregarded warning signs and gave an accused abuser continued access to children.
Pisticelli was still living in the San Francisco area in 2003, when California law opened a one-year window for accusers to file lawsuits over sexual abuse from years earlier that otherwise would have been precluded by the statute of limitations. Pisticelli brought a lawsuit that year against the Diocese of Oakland, its former bishop, the Salesian religious order and his accused abuser, the Rev. Stephen Whelan.
In court records, Pisticelli described two years of sexual victimization by Whelan, from 1969 through 1970, starting when Pisticelli was a 13-year-old student at Salesian High School in Richmond, Calif.
The same year Pisticelli filed his lawsuit, he learned that Whelan was still working as a priest assigned to a large parish in San Francisco with an elementary school. Pisticelli said he demanded to speak with San Francisco’s archbishop, Levada. Instead, he was directed to Wester.
“They said, ‘Levada’s not the man to see. The man to see is Auxiliary Bishop John Wester. He’s the point man for sex abuse in the diocese,’ ” Pisticelli said in a phone interview. “From there on, I met with him a minimum of half a dozen times.”
Wester gave Pisticelli confidence that Whelan would be sequestered from children following the revelation that he was facing a lawsuit that accused him of rape. Wester assured Pisticelli that the diocesan review board would conduct a thorough investigation, but Pisticelli said investigators never contacted him to gather even the most basic details, such as when, where or how any abuse took place.
As time went on, Pisticelli grew increasingly frustrated that the Archdiocese of San Francisco hadn’t taken action against Whelan. He staged protests outside Saints Peter and Paul Church, when Whelan was celebrating Mass.
“I was appalled that, during the suit, he’s still saying Mass, he’s ministering to elementary school kids,” Pisticelli said.
The legal fight between Pisticelli and the archdiocese went on for years and included a civil trial that in 2006 resulted in a jury award of $600,000, according to court records. Perhaps even more important from Pisticelli’s perspective, the jury returned findings that Whelan had abused Pisticelli — even after the archdiocese’s review board had found his allegations not credible — and Catholic leaders at the high school had covered up their knowledge of it.
Only after the jury verdict in 2006 did the Archdiocese of San Francisco remove Whelan from the ministry.
“Wester refused to take any meaningful action to warn parents, parishioners, police, prosecutors or the public about a pedophile priest,” said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
Confronted with Pisticelli’s claims, Wester steadfastly defended his action and those of the lay review board, which he said had ultimate authority to remove priests from ministry. Wester said the board often removed priests over abuse allegations, even in the absence of civil judgments or criminal convictions.
“There were many priests removed from ministry during those years in San Franscico,” Wester said, “and it was done without any hesitancy.”
In the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, Wester will take over an institution that has long struggled with sexual misdeeds by priests. Court depositions show that between 1974 and 1993, about 1 in 3 of the approximately 120 priests in the archdiocese had engaged in sexual misconduct. That included its head, Archbishop Robert Sanchez, whose sexual relations with more than 10 women gained national attention on the TV news magazine 60 Minutes.
The Archdiocese of Santa Fe also has faced criticisms for its oversight of the Servants of the Paraclete, a religious order that operated a retreat in Jemez Springs, a village in the Jemez Mountains west of Santa Fe. The order was founded in the late 1940s to provide treatment to priests with documented substance abuse and psychosexual behavior problems. The order gained more unwanted attention for the archdiocese in recent decades. Numerous priests accused of sexual abuse who passed through the order’s program went on to reoffend, and the efficacy of the treatment provided there has been questioned.
Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan succeeded Sanchez in 1993, and will retire this summer to be replaced by Wester. During Sheehan’s tenure as archbishop, more than 250 abuse claims have surfaced, and more than 100 resulted in lawsuits, with yet another filed as recently as last week. Sheehan has taken steps to stem abuse. For example, he instituted a ban on any employee of the archdiocese being alone with a child.
Brad Hall, an Albuquerque lawyer who has represented dozens of priest accusers in their lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, said an air of optimism surrounds Wester’s arrival, particularly after Wester vowed to protect children.
“Many of the survivors that my office represents are eager to work with the new ethos to bring the best parts of that vision of the renewed church to fruition,” Hall said. “In these cases, healing marries accountability, and bears fruit we can call justice and peace.”
Wester said he’s landed in a role of authority in the church at a unique time. Contemporary oversight of priests means reconciling wrongs that occurred years before today’s leaders had any power to stop them. It also entails trying to prevent more abuse from happening.
He said the heightened attention to the issue and public revelation of the church’s failings to date have taught his generation of church leaders something that was catastrophically missing decades ago.
“Thanks be to God,” he said, “there’s been a lot of learning in that regard.”