LOS ANGELES (AP) — 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.
The 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 AP, 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 the 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 Associated Press from a plaintiff’s attorney ahead of them being made public Wednesday.
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 co-director 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.”
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.
“In general, if you look at it, you’ll find the Franciscans were among the most aggressive,” Bosnahan said.
The Franciscans played a pivotal role in bringing Christianity to California. Its members — known for wearing brown, hooded cloaks — emphasize the poverty and humility of their founder, St. Francis of Assisi.
The soft-spoken, bespectacled priest Van Handel, who is now 65 and living as a registered sex offender in Santa Cruz County, admitted his crimes and 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, according to his file.
Messages left for Van Handel at his home address in Boulder Creek, Calif., and at his employer’s office Tuesday weren’t 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 while at the school. The choir drew young children from outside the seminary and toured Europe.
Van Handel would choose his victims from the choir — often preferring vulnerable and lost-looking children — 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 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. He was the one who determined who was going to be in and who was going to be out,” said Eckert, who is now a 42-year-old general contractor living in Santa Barbara. “My mom had total faith in him, and I had no question that anything was wrong with being there.”
Another priest, the Rev. Mario Cimmarrusti, has also been accused of abusing multiple students while he held the dual roles of head disciplinarian and head of the infirmary at St. Anthony’s in the late 1960s. Cimmarrusti, who also attended the school as a teenager, took over as prefect of discipline the year Van Handel graduated.
His confidential files show that in an evaluation by a sex offender therapist, the priest estimated he had molested between 30 and 40 boys. On another occasion, Cimmarrusti said he may have molested as many as 250 boys, according to the evaluation included in his personnel file.
He is not the priest who Van Handel said molested him in the infirmary.
Cimmarrusti, who is now 82, could not be reached for comment. His attorney, Robert “Skip” Howie, said Cimmarrusti vehemently denies all the allegations against him.
“As an attorney, I can tell you that records can be deceptive and misleading,” he said. “I’m really not here to argue the case, but all I can say is that he denies it.”
The priest has been accused by 24 former students who alleged in lawsuits that Cimmarrusti performed hernia checks on the incoming freshman class as an excuse to fondle them; delivered violent, sexually charged beatings for minor disciplinary infractions; and molested students who were sick in the infirmary.
One student, Paul Palecek, quit the seminary because of the abuse, he said, and gave up on his dream of becoming a Franciscan priest. He took a settlement from the religious order in the 1990s and remains active in the church and with missionary work overseas. Now 62, the semi-retired former contractor is studying to become a nurse.
Palecek testified that he told the school’s rector about the abuse but nothing was done. In a deposition, the Rev. Xavier Harris said he didn’t recall the conversation and there is no record of it in the priest’s internal files. Bosnahan, the Franciscans’ attorney, said he had no further information.
“I was really mad at God for a long time, but it wasn’t God’s fault. Mario chose to do evil,” Palecek said. “Someone should have caught it. Someone should have caught it and done something about it.”
The AP does not normally identify victims of sexual abuse. Palecek and Eckert gave permission to use their names in interviews with the AP.
Cimmarrusti went on to spend six years at St. Anthony’s after Palecek’s departure and then served as a missionary at a medical dispensary in Guayamas, Mexico, and in parishes in the Northern California towns of Stockton, Delano and San Miguel before being removed from the ministry in 1993 as his past closed in.
St. Anthony’s closed in 1987, just a few years before the first of the former students began to come forward with their allegations. Now, with the disclosure of the documents, some of the former seminarians feel they can finally move on with their lives.
“This is like a wound and it’s festering. In order to get this pus and this infection out, you have to open up the wound and let the air get to it and let it heal,” Palecek said. “I can apply that to my life and to the Catholic Church. You have to open up these documents and let the air get to them so we can heal.”
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