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Franciscan files paint a picture of generations of sexual abuse

Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

Paul Palecek said he was molested when he was a Franciscan seminary student in the 1960s and reported the abuse, but nothing was done.

LOS ANGELES - Robert Van Handel was a 15-year-old seminarian at St. Anthony’s, a prestigious Franciscan boarding school, when, he said, a priest slipped into the infirmary where he was recovering from a fever and began to molest him. The priest told him it would help draw the fever out.

More than a decade later, Van Handel himself was molesting children while working as a Franciscan priest at the same Santa Barbara boarding school. Van Handel formed a boys’ choir for local children and chose his victims from among its ranks for eight years.

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The generational arc of sexual abuse at St. Anthony’s, including Van Handel’s own account of his crimes, is included in more than 4,000 pages from the confidential files of nine Franciscan religious brothers who were accused of abuse. The internal files, coupled with an additional 4,000 pages of sworn testimony obtained by the Associated Press, are the largest release of a religious order’s files to date and paint one of the fullest pictures yet of a pervasive culture of abuse that affected generations of students at a seminary dedicated to training future Franciscans.

The religious order settled for $28 million in 2006 with plaintiffs who alleged abuse by the nine Franciscans, but Van Handel and other defendants fought the release of their private files for six years in a legal battle that reached the California Supreme Court.

The files were obtained by the AP from a plaintiff’s attorney ahead of their being made public Wednesday.

Brian Bosnahan, an attorney representing the Franciscans, said the files do not show that the Franciscans knew of the abuse at the school or by other Franciscans included in the settlement. The religious order was quicker than most to address concerns about sexual abuse and launched an investigation into the abuse at St. Anthony’s in 1992, years before other Roman Catholic institutions took up the issue, Bosnahan said.

No Franciscans have been accused of abuse since, he added.

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“In general, if you look at it, you’ll find the Franciscans were among the most aggressive,’’ Bosnahan said.

The documents show how abuse in a religious order can be closely tied to the formation of children who grow up to become brothers and priests, said Terence McKiernan, founder and codirector of Bishop Accountability, which curates internal documents about sexual abuse in the Catholic church.

“One offender bringing kids in can set them up to be abused by another offender and those kids in turn grow up to become a member of the order and themselves begin abusing children,’’ he said. “The generational phenomenon of abuse is really, really clear in these documents, and it’s a heartbreaking story.’’

The soft-spoken, bespectacled Van Handel, now 65 and living as a registered sex offender, is the only priest of the nine Franciscans to be criminally convicted. He detailed his actions in a “sexual autobiography’’ and in court papers that are included in his confidential files.

He said his biggest concern was “the actual and potential damage I’ve caused to young men, the Friars, and the Catholic Church,’’ he told a probation officer in 1994.

Messages left for Van Handel at his home address in Boulder Creek, Calif., and at his employer’s office Tuesday were not immediately returned.

Van Handel, who graduated from St. Anthony’s in 1965 and later taught there for a decade, has been accused of molesting 19 people, many of them young boys he met while directing the choir he founded. The choir drew children from outside the seminary and toured Europe.

Van Handel would choose his victims from the choir and would photograph them nude, sometimes covered in oil, dressed in pauper’s clothing, or tied up with rope in the seminary’s tower. He also would play tickling and touching games, according to his files.

One of his alleged victims, Bob Eckert, said he never thought at the time that what Van Handel was doing was wrong. The priest helped the 10-year-old Eckert shower with other boys while the choir was touring Europe and then photographed him, Eckert said.

“I completely looked up to him,’’ said Eckert, a 42-year-old general contractor.

Another priest, the Rev. Mario Cimmarrusti, has also been accused of abusing multiple students in the 1960s. Cimmarrusti, who also attended the school as a teenager, took over as prefect of discipline the year Van Handel graduated. Cimmarrusti once said he may have molested as many as 250 boys.

One student, Paul Palecek, quit the seminary because of the abuse, he said. He took a settlement from the religious order in the 1990s.

Palecek testified that he told the school’s rector about the abuse but nothing was done.

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