Nearly 10,000 pages in internal documents belonging to the Catholic Diocese of San Diego -- unsealed under court order -- reveal a longstanding practice of covering for sexually abusive priests and shuffling them off to other dioceses.
The records are from the personnel files of 48 priests who were either credibly accused or convicted of sexual abuse or were named in a civil lawsuit. They include a decades-old case in which a priest under police investigation was allowed to leave the U.S. after the diocese intervened.
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The files show what the diocese knew about abusive priests, starting decades before any allegations became public, and that some church leaders moved priests around or overseas despite credible complaints against them.
At least one convicted sex offender is still serving as a priest but south of the border, beyond the reach of American jurisprudence.
A former San Diego priest convicted of molesting two boys in San Bernardino is still with the Catholic Church, but is now in Ensenada, Mexico.
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Father Gustavo Benson served at Our Lady of Sacred Heart in San Diego in 1971. In 1975, he was at St. John Church in Encinitas, and in 1977 at Mary Star of the Sea in Oceanside. He worked in several different parishes in California until he was charged with molesting two boys in San Bernardino. Benson entered a plea of no contest and agreed to counseling. 10News learned he was then sent to the Diocese of Tijuana, where he has been serving for more than a decade.
A woman answering the phone at San Pablo Apostol in Ensenada confirmed Benson delivered Sunday's sermon and then left on a 15-20 day vacation.
Another priest was quietly moved back to his native Colombia and managed to avoid legal action entirely.
In at least one instance, the files included documented abuse by a priest whose name had not before surfaced in any lawsuit or criminal case, the Rev. Luis Eugene de Francisco, who was originally from Colombia. Police investigated de Francisco for allegedly abusing children, but the diocese convinced authorities to drop the case if the priest would return immediately to his Colombian diocese and never return to the U.S.
"In early August 1963, Father was placed under arrest by the civil police of the City of San Diego for violation of the State Penal Code," then-Bishop Charles F. Buddy wrote the Colombian bishop in the Diocese of Cali. "At that time, arrangements were made between this Chancery and the civil authorities of San Diego in which, if Father left the United States with the promise never to return, the charges against Father would be set aside by Civil Law."
At least two priests were subject to psychiatric care and put back into the ministry without being "cured." Rev. Robert Nikliborc was sent on "retreat" after accusations from parents of abused children but was later put in charge of a residential facility for troubled boys. (!!!) Rev. Anthony Rodrigue was returned to service in the church over the express objections of his psychiatrists.
In all these cases, the intervention of church officials protected these priests from consequences and further endangered children. Bishop Buddy is on record as having coached Rev. de Francisco on the importance of evading the law.
"You have won a reputation as a zealous worker and devoted to the poor," Bishop Buddy wrote the priest in a December 1962 letter.
"On the other hand, the 'incidents' at Indio were more serious than first presented to me, especially inasmuch as the police have made a record of them. You know how word gets around, so that you be certain that the police here will be on your trail. ... It will be more prudent and more secure for you to return to your own diocese."
So, once again, the appearance of impropriety is worse than the impropriety. And avoiding civil authority is the goal; not protecting children. Now the Church has to deal with, and pay for, the devastating reality of what happened to those children.
"I hid it from my parents, I hid it from the world, and I want the world to know that it's tough," said Jim Whitman, who calls himself a survivor after being sexually abused by his priest as a child.
Whitman, a San Diego resident, recently settled a lawsuit with the San Diego Catholic Diocese after claiming that the abuse was at the hands of Father Gustavo Benson. Whitman says prior to telling his story, he spent 20 years on the streets hooked on meth and alcohol. At one point he tried to commit suicide.