Over 8,500 pages of documents detailing charges of sex abuse of minors within the Franciscan religious order in California were published Wednesday, revealing dark secrets about years of ongoing abuse by a boarding school choir director and eight other clergymen.
The files are believed to be the largest release of religious order documents in the history of the sexual abuse crisis, according to BishopAccountability.org. They reveal details of crimes committed by the nine priests who were accused of abuse, including Robert Van Handel, a former Franciscan priest and choir director at St. Anthony's, a prestigious Franciscan boarding school in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Among the documents are notes from the men's therapists, letters from parents of alleged victims, and reports by the Board of Inquiry.
A majority of the files is now available online. All documents outline the abuse of 25 alleged victims. Van Handel is the only clergyman of those mentioned who has been criminally convicted.
Van Handel described his life and his deeds in detail in a document dubbed as his "sexual autobiography," used by California courts and published online by Bishops Accountability, an organization tracking cases of sex abuse that took place in the Roman Catholic Church.
First, Van Handel describes his "fear of sex, women, men, and my father" when he was a young boy, which was "fitting well" into "the idea of going off to the seminary to be a priest." But before ending up at the seminary, 14-year-old Van Handel would attend St. Anthony's, the same boarding school at which he would later molest young boys. There, he was molested himself at age 15, he claims.
In his "sexual autobiography," he described a priest entering his room when he was lying in bed with fever. The priest touched him inappropriately, and claimed the next day that he was trying to lower his fever. "While I don't think it is of crucial importance in my life, it is curious that this is nearly the exact activity I would perform ten to fifteen years later," Van Handel wrote.
Van Handel graduated from St. Anthony's in 1965 and later taught there for a decade. He had been accused of molesting 19 people, many of them young boys he met while directing the community choir he founded while at the school. Among the acts the clergyman was accused of and convicted for were photographing the boys nude, sometimes covered in oil, dressing them in pauper's clothing or tying them up with rope. He was also playing tickling and touching games, according to the files.
Van Handel, 65, is currently living as a registered sex offender in Santa Cruz County, according to The Associated Press.
According to the documents, he admitted in 1994 he worried about "the actual and potential damage I've caused to young men."
But Van Handel's account describes not only his sexual acts on others, but also the generally ethically spoiled atmosphere he was surrounded with, including at St. Anthony's and later at the seminary. Men who were studying to be priests talked about sex a lot, masturbated and apparently did not consider their actions morally inappropriate. The sex offender's account suggests that he, who came from a "proud Catholic family," did not commit any sexual act at all until he learned it from his colleagues, future monks.
St. Anthony's closed in 1987, just a few years before the first of the former students began to come forward with their allegations.
Another priest accused of sexual contacts with minors whose documentation was published is Mario Cimmarrusti, who has also been accused of abusing multiple students while he acted as head disciplinarian and head of the infirmary at St. Anthony's in the late 1960s.
According to released documentation, he underwent a Certified Sex Offender Treatment, and in a 1993 report his therapist wrote Cimmarrusti admitted he "has molested minor males and has been acting out in a sexually addictive and dangerous manner with adults." 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.
Cimmarrusti claimed he was sexually molested at age 11.
The Franciscan order settled for $28 million in 2006 with plaintiffs who alleged abuse by the nine brothers, according to AP.
Van Handel and other defendants fought against the release of their private files for six years, according to Bishop Accountability. The legal battle reached the California Supreme Court, but was ultimately lost in January 2011.
Bishop Accountability has also suggested that the portfolio of files proves a cover-up by other officials of the mentioned institutions, who must have been aware at least partially of the sexual misconduct. But Brian Bosnahan, an attorney representing the Franciscans, denied that that is the case. In fact, he told AP, the Franciscan 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.
"In general, if you look at it, you'll find the Franciscans were among the most progressive," Bosnahan was quoted saying. There have been no substantiated reports of abuse by Franciscans since, the attorney said.
The Franciscan friars first came to the west coast in 1769 and played a pivotal role in bringing Christianity to California. The California order now has 275 friars, according to the website. Approximately 200 men contact the California institution each year, wanting to join the vocation, the Franciscan officials claim.