"He would take me in the back and do all sorts of things. I was really confused. I didn't know what I should do," George Santillan told me in 2013.
Santillan was describing the years of sexual abuse inflicted upon him and his younger brother, Howard Santillan, by Monsignor Anthony Herdegen of St. John's Catholic Church in Wasco.
According to documents from a Fresno appellate court, the sexual abuse began when George was 10, in 1959, and when Howard was 6, in 1960. Like thousands of other children molested by priests, the brothers never told anyone about the abuse until many years later — only to be met by disbelief. They were called liars.
And Herdegen never served a day in jail.
Later this month, Pope Francis will host a worldwide summit to discuss how the church might prevent clergy sex abuse and better protect children. The Feb. 21-24 meeting will include the presidents of the more than 100 Catholic bishops' conferences of the world; they will all assemble at the Vatican. God knows the Catholic Church is in crisis, much of it of its own making: It has so badly mishandled sex abuse cases. It has failed to report allegations to the police and church leaders have covered for pedophile priests. Will or can this summit make any difference at this point?
"My hope is that ... the Catholic Church will do two things: Continue to publicly repent of their failings to minister to victims of clergy sexual abuse and offer healing; and continue — as has been done since 2002 — to commit themselves to greater and greater appropriate transparency when dealing with accusations by victims," Monsignor Craig Harrison of St. Francis Church wrote in an email.
Another local priest, Monsignor Perry Kavookjian of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, had a similar take. He wrote, "My hope is that the Church will develop a clear set of guidelines and protocol when it comes to dealing with reports of abuse by clergy. I am also hopeful that the Church will make it mandatory that all bishops follow through with the reporting of allegations and follow-up. No more secrets."
Amen to that!
As I said, Herdegen never saw the inside of a jail cell. By the time their story was taken seriously, George and Howard Santillan were grown men. The statute of limitations had expired, meaning it was too late to prosecute Herdegen, and the Kern County District Attorney's Office did not file charges. That's something that still roils Charles Santillan, brother to George and Howard.
"Church leaders need to turn (accused priests) over to the police, because what they're doing is a major crime," he said. "The Church just transfers (accused priests) somewhere else."
Last year's most disturbing revelation, from a Pennsylvania grand jury report, accuses bishops and other Catholic Church leaders of covering up child sexual abuse committed by more than 300 priests in that state. "Priests were raping little boys and girls," the grand jury wrote, "and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing, they hid it all. For decades."
The Pennsylvania grand jury made a couple of recommendations to protect children and help victims obtain justice from past abuse. Those steps can also help victims in California.
First, eliminate all time limits for the filing of criminal complaints in child sex abuse cases. In other words, if a child is abused at 10, law enforcement can still pursue the case no matter how much time has gone by. Same goes for time constraints for victims filing civil suits against their perpetrators. I really hope that our Kern County representatives in Sacramento are willing to look into this. But don't expect the Catholic Church to willingly go along with these recommendations.
It's anybody's guess what the outcome of the Vatican summit may be. Pope Francis himself is under fire for allegedly shielding Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, accused of sexual abuse of minors and other misdeeds. Church conservatives are calling for an investigation and the ouster of Pope Francis. And years of revelations of scandals have taken a toll.
"I know of people who have left the Church because of the many allegations that have occurred," wrote Kavookjian. "For those who have stayed with the practice of their faith, however, more anger seems to be directed toward those bishops who have covered these matters up."
George Santillan died a few years ago at the age of 64. Howard Santillan pursued the lawsuit and eventually came to a settlement with the Diocese of Fresno, but the undisclosed amount was nothing, said his brother Charles. Herdegen left the area for Wisconsin and died in 2009.