Credit: Bernard Gagnon

With the statute of limitations on such cases soon set to expire, a 40-year-old Santa Barbara County resident identified only as John Doe filed legal papers in court alleging he’d been sexually assaulted at the hands of the Franciscan Friars of California, the Old Mission Santa Barbara, the Roman Catholic Diocese, and the San Roque Catholic Church. 

Father Robert Van Handel | Credit: Courtesy

Specifically, the complaint charges that Father Robert Van Handel and Monsignor Vincent McCabe sexually abused the plaintiff in 1989 when he was a 5th grader singing in the St. Anthony’s choir under the direction of Van Handel and serving as an altar boy at the San Roque parish under the guidance of Monsignor McCabe. According to the complaint, both Van Handel — criminally convicted for sexually abusing multiple members of the choir and sentenced to time behind bars — and McCabe, who died in 2015, three years before he would be named in what church leaders deemed a “credible” complaint — abused the plaintiff by touching his buttocks and genitals. Van Handel used the pretext of helping the boy change his uniform to do so. On one occasion, Van Handel  reportedly had the plaintiff sit on his lap while the priest  accompanied the boy on the piano while practicing the song “Tea for Two.” 

According to the complaint, Van Handel — who had been sexually molested himself while attending St. Anthony’s as a seminarian — climaxed while rubbing himself against the boy. According to attorney Tim Hale — who represents the plaintiff — Van Handel had notified his superiors in the 1970s that he had an attraction to young boys. “Not guys,” Hale stated. “Boys.” Van Handel would abuse 22 victims before he was stripped of his collar in 1997.  

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Hale — who has represented many sexual abuse victims in cases against the Franciscans — contends that McCabe’s superiors knew or should have known of his pedophiliac tendencies as well. Hale said the experience has left his client scarred “from a life of chaos,” marked by serious anger and trust issues. The statute of limitations on such cases will expire this December, Hale cautioned. It marks the second time the State Legislature saw fit to expand the opportunity for victims of clerical abuse to file claims. Hale’s court pleading reads like many of the sexual abuse scandals that rocked the Santa Barbara Mission and St. Anthony’s Seminary — now closed — back in the early 1990s. Since the 1950s, he stated, no less than 38 Franciscans have been named as sexual perpetrators in Santa Barbara and 73 victims have come forward claiming they were sexually abused. As early as 1950, Hale stated, the Bishop of San Diego was complaining that the Franciscans of Santa Barbara had been using San Diego “as a dumping ground for their moral, mental and physical problems. It became necessary for me some time ago to demand the withdrawal of one misfit after another.”

Brian Brosnahan, the attorney representing the Franciscans, stated he’d not been served with the legal papers yet and had not had a chance to review them for comment.

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