ENOUGH! I’ve never met Santa Barbara’s Bishop Thomas J. Curry, and Curry, it seems, is intent on keeping it that way. I can see why. Curry — said to be a thoughtful, scholarly guy — finds himself thrust agonizingly into the festering sex-abuse cover-up scandal that’s rocked the Archdiocese of Los Angeles for more than 10 years. Before his appointment to Santa Barbara, Curry served as right-hand man to Archbishop — and then cardinal — Roger Mahony of L.A. In that capacity, it was Curry’s function to take care of pedophile priests. This he did, according to internal church documents just made public, by taking care that such priests escaped the attention of law enforcement authorities. These documents—memos written by Curry himself—would appear to constitute grounds for criminal prosecution had the statute of limitations not expired. Curry, it may be said, was trying to obtain treatment for problem priests. What he secured instead was protection. After the Los Angeles Times broke the story last week, Curry has busied himself attending various events celebrating National Catholic Schools Week, which commenced January 27. The theme this year is “high standards” — as in academic and moral. Catholic schools would be better served if Curry stayed away. Catholic schools actually get the job done. Students are held accountable; they’re not allowed to hide. Those that try are systemically exposed and humiliated. Methodologically, it’s rough but extremely effective.
Based on the public “apology” Curry issued, he clearly needs a remedial crash course in both accountability and public humiliation. In written remarks, Curry acknowledged and apologized for decisions he’d made regarding “the treatment and disposition” of predator priests “that in retrospect appear inadequate or mistaken.” Appeared? In memos written to Mahony in 1986 and 1987, Curry worries again and again that if pedophile priests are open and revealing with their therapists, the therapists would feel legally obligated — as in fact they were — to report such conduct to law enforcement authorities. In one instance, he expressed surprise that a certain therapist hadn’t already done so, and advised Mahony that another therapist should be sought. If only the church could find someone who was both a therapist and an attorney, he opined, such fears could be allayed. In another memo, Curry counsels against allowing a prolific predator — who threatened to have a boy he assaulted deported — back in town after treatment in New Mexico. Given that there were 20 victims around and that the perp was looking at “first-degree felony” charges, Curry wrote, he should stay away.
Activists in Santa Barbara’s survivor circuit find the shrewd and cunning voice Curry displays in these memos violently at odds with the ignorance and naïveté he’s professed when discussing sexual abuse here in town. Ray Higgins, whose son was abused at St. Anthony’s, remembers a public meeting in 1992 at which Curry “violently denied anything like this ever happened on his watch.” Another participant in that meeting told me the same thing. Ten years later, a man who’d been abused as a young boy by Father Matthew Kelly of Our Lady of Guadalupe said he notified Bishop Curry of his abuse only to be told the same thing. “I can’t believe anything like this could happen in our Catholic Church,” he claims Curry told him. He would eventually sue the archdiocese and “win” a substantial settlement.
Likewise, when Curry moved to Santa Barbara in 1992, there’s no indication he did anything to prevent the archdiocese from appointing Father James Ford — whose personnel files contained four allegations of sexual misconduct — as pastor of the San Roque parish, where he served until 2005. The first allegation was filed in 1983, the second in 1987, and two in 1993. In 1983, Ford was accused by a seminarian about to be expelled for being his companion in “moral difficulty.” In 1987, Curry heard from a monsignor who’d heard from a seminarian that Ford had sexual relations with another seminarian then dying of AIDS and that Ford “tended to be involved with high school boys.” In January 1993, church authorities heard from a man who claimed to have had an 11-month sexual relationship with Ford. He claimed they’d had sex “in the parish” and that they took AIDS tests together prior to “consummation,” and that they frequented “a gay cruising spot” in Ventura, where Ford owned a condo. Three months later, a Monsignor Dyer would notify a church-paid therapist that people in Oxnard and Sepulveda were making “comments about his [Ford’s] lifestyle for over a period of ten years.” Ford emphatically denied all such allegations, and at least one church inquiry failed to substantiate allegations of child abuse. To date, no one from San Roque has come forward to report abuse at Ford’s hands. But in 2003, a Dallas-based fresco artist named Matt Stevens sued Ford and the church, claiming he’d been abused repeatedly by Ford from 1968-1971 while he was an altar boy at the Holy Family parish in Orange County. Stevens said Ford gave him a book about how adolescents could maintain their purity, and said Ford heard him confess and offered absolution to sins Stevens committed while with Ford. Without admitting the validity of these claims, the church settled with Stevens in 2007 for $1.1 million. Since then, Stevens said he’s discovered 19 individuals from Santa Barbara who told him they’d been molested by Ford. To the extent any have made such allegations to church officials is unknown. None have gone public; based on the statue of limitations, no lawsuits could be filed.
Stevens claimed he reported Ford to a priest then assigned to Holy Family, G. Patrick Ziemann. Ziemann would later become Bishop of Santa Barbara and Santa Rosa. He was forced to resign in 1999 when his own history of sexual abuse was revealed. Stevens claims Ziemann responded to his allegations against Ford by molesting him, as well. Shortly after this report, Ford was reassigned. He would eventually make his way to San Rafael’s in Goleta, where he would work alongside the popular and charismatic Fr. Donald Roener. In 1981, Roener would be convicted of sexually abusing minors, making him one of the very first to achieve that dubious distinction. When Ford retired from San Roque in 2005, he moved to Palm Springs, where he sought to volunteer at a high school. Fortunately, a survivors’ advocacy group brought Ford’s reputation to light. He died in 2009.
Bishop Curry has no doubt done many good things in his life. But right now, he needs to do one more. Resign immediately. No, it won’t spare him the agonizing humiliation yet to come as new documents are released. It’s just the right thing to do.