Diocese Looks into Claims against Priest

By Bruce Gerstman
Contra Costa Times
March 18, 2006


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The Oakland Diocese is investigating a Walnut Creek priest accused of sexually abusing a minor in a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Archdiocese and the Franciscan Friars of California that was tentatively settled this week.

According to court documents, Christopher Berbena, a hospital chaplain based at St. John Vianney Catholic Church on Ygnacio Valley Road, molested a boy in 1980 at a Santa Barbara Catholic school. The complaint also names more than 40 other clergymen and others who worked for the religious organizations.

“I haven’t heard much about (the lawsuit),” Berbena said by phone Friday, declining to comment further.

The alleged victim, identified in the lawsuit as “Robert O.,” is among 25 plaintiffs who are finalizing a settlement with the Los Angeles Archdiocese and the Franciscan Friars in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

The settlement calls for the alleged victims to receive more than $28 million and for the religious organizations to make public the personnel files of priests named in the suits.

Berbena was working as a priest in 2003 when the lawsuit was filed, said Mark Wiesner, communications director for the Diocese of Oakland. Berbena denied the allegations, Wiesner said.

The diocese immediately suspended him for six months while investigating the claim, Wiesner said. The alleged victim and his attorney refused to speak with the diocese at the time.

The organization moved Berbena to his current position “to do ministry in a limited way” as an emergency hospital chaplain, serving Kaiser and John Muir Medical Centers in Walnut Creek, Wiesner said.

“It was impossible for Father Berbena to receive due process at the time,” Wiesner said.

Once the settlement is final, the Oakland Diocese will try to speak with Robert O. and determine the credibility of his accusations, Wiesner said. The investigation will determine Berbena’s future with the church, he said.

“It could go all kinds of ways depending on what we find out,” Wiesner said.

Anthony DeMarco, the Beverly Hills-based attorney representing Robert O., declined to say whether Berbena’s personnel records contain other claims of abuse.

The attorney representing the Franciscans — Berbena’s order before 1997 — said an independent investigative panel that in 1993 looked into allegations of molestation by Franciscan priests concluded that Berbena had a clean record.

“I do not believe anyone accused him at the time (of the investigation),” attorney Brian Brosnahan said.

Berbena was ordained in 1980 in Santa Barbara as a Franciscan priest, DeMarco said. He moved to San Francisco and worked at churches in San Francisco in 1981 and 1982.

Berbena changed orders in 1997, joining the Diocese of Oakland, DeMarco said.

On Sunday, members of the East Bay affiliate of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, plan to gather in front of St. John Vianney Church to tell people about the allegations against Berbena.

“The thing that frightens advocates is that (church leaders) don’t tell parents about his alleged past,” said SNAP coordinator Joseph Piscitelli.

One St. John Vianney parishioner said that most members of the church were told about the allegations at least two years ago.

“I didn’t assume anything when I heard about it,” said Carol Carter of Walnut Creek. “He’s always been a lovely man. He gave last rites to my grandmother.”

Reach Bruce Gerstman at 925-952-2670 or at [email protected].