San Juan parish gathers after priest claims go public

Father Edward Fitz-Henry, shown in this 2007 file photo, has been suspended due to claims he inappropriately touched a minor in 2005.

The church at the San Juan Bautista Mission held its first
Sunday mass since a civil lawsuit was filed Tuesday in Monterey
against the church’s former pastor Rev. Edward Fitz-Henry, alleging
he sexually abused a member of Salinas’ Madonna Del Sasso Parish
choir in 2005.
The church at the San Juan Bautista Mission held its first Sunday mass since a civil lawsuit was filed Tuesday in Monterey against the church’s former pastor Rev. Edward Fitz-Henry, alleging he sexually abused a member of Salinas’ Madonna Del Sasso Parish choir in 2005.

During this past Sunday’s mass, the church asked parishioners to send a letter of their thoughts – both positive or negative – about the former pastor, said a parishioner who asked to remain anonymous. Parishioners who spoke with the Free Lance after the mass expressed support for Fitz-Henry and that they believed he was innocent.

“I’m still surprised,” Dina Salak said. “I don’t believe the accusation – I just don’t believe it.”

The lawsuit filed recently alleges Fitz-Henry discussed sexual issues with the then 14-year-old victim that eventually escalated to sexual touching. The Monterey bishop, Richard Garcia, and Madonna Del Sasso Parish also are listed in the suit.

There have been no criminal charges, but the Salinas Police Department continues to investigate the allegations.

The Diocese of Monterey temporarily suspended Fitz-Henry, who has spent 15 years at the Mission in two separate stints, on Jan. 7 after the church contends it first received information regarding the alleged incident, Fitz-Henry’s criminal attorney Charlie Keeley has said. The attorney has said Fitz-Henry denies the allegations and is distraught over the effect on his reputation.

The diocese later indefinitely suspended the pastor and removed him of all duties after receiving new information about an incident suspected of occurring, involving the same priest, 19 years earlier. Monterey officials have suspended a second priest, too, claiming he failed to divulge knowing of the allegations in late 2010.

As the criminal probe continues, Fitz-Henry has hired a second attorney, San Juan Bautista’s Daniel DeVries, to address the civil court lawsuit from the alleging victim.

San Juan Bautista Mission parishioners first heard of the allegations Feb. 13, when diocese representatives asked for more information if there are other potential allegations.

Elenita Antonio, who drives in from Salinas every Sunday, doesn’t believe the allegations because Fitz-Henry is “too good of a man.”

“I come here because of him,” she said. “He lifted my spirits every Sunday. I always couldn’t wait for Sunday because of him. I don’t think he did it.”

Most of the people who walked out of Sunday’s mass held a white envelope with the Monterey bishop’s address on it.

Lora Botelho said she couldn’t believe any of it, and that the church could have handled it better.

“In my mind, he didn’t do any of it,” she said. “I fully support Father Ed and I’ll do whatever I can to help.”

Botelho believed the church could have been more open in the beginning – but they have gotten better.

“I don’t like how it was handled in the beginning,” she said. “It’s better now, but that’s all I have to say.”

Antonio agreed that the church wasn’t as open about the allegations until recently, she said.

“For a while there was a lot of hush, hush,” she said. “I think they were doing the best they could.”

Regardless, Antonio was doubtful, similarly to the others who spoke.

“With this allegation, it seems to be like when something good is happening, people always want to destroy it,” she said.

A spokesman for the diocese has said Monterey officials knew of the previous incident, which took place at the Carmel Mission 19 years ago, beforehand. But its sexual nature was unknown before recent developments, diocese spokesman Tom Riordan said. The diocese knew of a strong professional relationship in Carmel but did not believe it was sexual. The new information came from the previous victim during the church investigation into the 2005 allegations, Riordan said.

The spokesman was unavailable to comment on the latest Monday because the diocese office was closed Monday due to the holiday.

Vince Finaldi, the attorney for the 21-year-old victim, has called into question the response from the church and the bishop after it was admitted Fitz-Henry was accused of sexual misconduct 19 years ago.

A national group that represents victims of suspected abuses by priests, meanwhile, has called for the Diocese of Monterey to release all information about prior allegations in light of the recent allegations. An official for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, held a press conference Wednesday outside the diocese office in Monterey and also accused the church of knowing about another suspected sexual incident reported, 19 years ago, involving the same priest.

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