Dozens of Northern California Catholic priests and church employees – some still working, others retired or deceased – are being publicly accused for the first time of sexually abusing children in their care. The allegations suggest startling new depths to the decades-long scandal that continues to rock the church and its followers.
Those new accusations – and many more – have surfaced in a wave of lawsuits washing over Catholic institutions across the state, including every Northern California diocese from Fresno to Santa Rosa. Some of the new filings allege cover-ups that protected accused predators and silenced victims.
NBC Bay Area’s investigation – based on a review of nearly 140 new legal filings and interviews with more than a dozen plaintiffs, attorneys, and other sources – has so far identified more than 40 Northern California priests or church employees facing child sex abuse allegations for the first time, a number that’s almost certain to grow by the end of the year.
The new names are absent from internal lists of suspected abusers that most Northern California Catholic dioceses have released in recent years -- with the exception of the San Francisco Archdiocese -- nor do they appear on websites dedicated to tracking clergy abuse, such as Bishop Accountability.
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Among the newly-accused clergy are four Bay Area priests who continue to work despite the recent allegations against them. The two dioceses that employ those priests – San Francisco and Santa Rosa – said internal reviews have so far not sustained the allegations against the men, so they remain in ministry.
Dozens of other priests who have been previously accused in past legal filings or were criminally charged -- including some of the most notorious known abusers in the region -- also face new allegations in the mountain of court filings.
Other revelations include a string of new sex abuse accusations leveled against clergy and staff at schools for vulnerable Bay Area children: St. Vincent’s School for Boys in Marin County and the Hanna Boys Center in Sonoma. One such lawsuit alleges the sex trafficking of St. Vincent’s Boys to a remote Sonoma County summer camp called CYO Camp in the early 1980s, where one plaintiff states in his complaint that he was given alcohol and forced to engage in sex acts with multiple priests and other boys.
“This is really just part of the healing process, this is not about any kind of financial gain,” said former Bay Area resident Mark Staley, who alleged in a recent lawsuit that deceased Oakland priest Msgr. Michael McGinty physically and sexually abused him when he was eight or nine years old.
Before Staley’s lawsuit, it appears there is no available record of previous accusations against the priest.
Staley is one of more than 700 Californians now suing Catholic dioceses across the state using a 2019 law that opened a three-year “lookback window” for potential victims to file civil lawsuits based on older childhood sex abuse claims -- claims typically barred by the statute of limitations.
Staley, a former altar boy, said he repressed the traumatic memory of his abuse until it recently surfaced in therapy. He now recalls being summoned to the furious priest's office for laughing during mass.
“The next thing I remember is his hands were here on my throat,” Staley said. “I can recall passing out, and when I woke, I was looking down and I could see the top of his head.”
Spencer Lucas, Staley's attorney, said he's not shocked that dozens of new names are emerging among the list of accused priests.
“There are so many priests that have been accused that are not on the [church’s] list of credibly accused priests, and that’s not surprising to me,” Lucas said. “Routinely there’s been a pattern and practice and long history of the Catholic Church not only sweeping these accusations under the rug but engaging in corrupt cover-ups time and time again.”
In Northern California, more than 200 plaintiffs have filed lawsuits against the church so far, with hundreds more lined up to file new claims by the time the window closes on Dec. 31, according to attorneys managing the cases.
“I would expect that we’re going to see more than a thousand cases [in Northern California] by the end of this,” said Rick Simons, a Bay Area attorney who is co-managing the consolidated Northern California clergy abuse cases on behalf of the plaintiffs. “The public needs to know the church is not the victim. They think they’re the victim, but it’s the kids who spent their entire life carrying this scar and burden. They’re the ones that need the attention and it should be about them.”
California bishops and their attorneys have been pushing back against the lookback window law, arguing it’s unconstitutional and could be financially devastating for Catholic dioceses, especially after they paid enormous settlement sums during a similar window nearly 20 years ago. After failed attempts in state courts to overturn the law, the bishops petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court in April to review the case, but the court declined to do so.
“Review is critical now, before the Catholic Church in the largest State in the union is forced to litigate hundreds or thousands of cases seeking potentially billions of dollars in retroactive punitive damages under an unconstitutional double-revival regime,” attorneys representing the Church argued.
But for potential victims, Simons said, the cases represent something more powerful than financial gain.
“The most common reason that people tell me is, ‘It’s too late to really change my life, but I want to protect my kids, my grandkids. I want to make sure there’s no more children that go through what I went through.’”
The recent lawsuits have already proved to be a trove of new clergy abuse information. As the cases move forward in court, plaintiffs’ attorneys expect to pry loose internal church documents through the discovery process that could widen the scandal even further and potentially shed light on what church officials new about potential predatory priests and when they knew it.
Dan McNevin, a local leader for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), has been tracking the new cases and said he’s seeing interesting patterns beginning to emerge.
“Many new names are coming out,” McNevin said. “I think that the dam was broken in the 2003 [lookback window], but a lot of people back then weren’t ready. So, we’re seeing cases that are from the sixties and seventies and eighties, but we’re also beginning to see cases from the nineties and from the 2000s. So, I think people are finally finding the strength to speak their truth.”
Ninety-one individual priests or church employees are accused of sexually abusing minors across the lawsuits reviewed by NBC Bay Area, some by multiple plaintiffs.
In one such case, a trio of brothers allege they were all molested by a staff member at St. Vincent’s School for Boys in the 1960s.
In written statements, Bay Area dioceses said they take the abuse claims seriously, pointing out support services for potential victims outlined on their respective websites. However, they mostly declined to comment on specific cases because of the pending lawsuits.
“The most recent accusations to which you are referring are unsubstantiated allegations which now are in the earliest stages of litigation,” a spokesperson for the San Francisco Archdiocese said in a written statement. “Moreover, the Archdiocese does not and will not comment on any possible pending litigation, particularly when the claims are, on average, over 50 years old.”
Nearly half of the accused abusers named in the lawsuits analyzed by NBC Bay Area appear to be facing public sex abuse allegations for the very first time, such as now-deceased San Francisco priest Rev. Martin Greenlaw. He pleaded guilty to embezzling from the church in the 1990s but is now accused of forcing an eight-year-old boy to perform oral sex on him a decade earlier.
Another such example is Oakland priest Fr. Jesus Prieto, also deceased, now alleged to have sexually assaulted a student at a Catholic elementary school in Oakland approximately 100 times in the 1960’s. The grooming, according to the lawsuit, began with Fr. Prieto showing the boy Playboy magazines and letting him drink wine.
Like so many other potential victims, the Prieto plaintiff said the abuse had a ruinous effect on his life.
“Plaintiff has suffered from alcohol and other substance abuse throughout his life and has spent a significant portion of his life in prison,” the lawsuit states. “As an adult, Plaintiff suffered and continues to suffer anxiety, depression, and other symptoms of mental illness.
It’s likely the list of priests and church officials accused for the first time will only get longer in the months to come, with attorneys expecting a flurry of new filings before the window closes in December.
It’s not just priests, either.
A slew of Catholic school employees, such as teachers, coaches, and janitors also face new allegations.
One unnamed plaintiff alleges in a lawsuit he was sexually abused as a teenager around 1999 or 2000 by a teacher at a Catholic school operating under the Diocese of Fresno. The complaint alleges the teacher fondled himself while forcing the plaintiff to engage in sexual acts with another student.
About a decade earlier, when the same plaintiff was about 6 years old, according to the lawsuit, he had been raped at school by a now-deceased priest named Dino Riccomini and forced to perform sexual acts with his young classmates.
The Diocese of Fresno declined to comment on any pending lawsuits.
Beyond the new names, the cases also shed new light on some of the most prolific predator priests in Northern California, such as now-defrocked priest Stephen Kiesle, who is facing more than a dozen new abuse allegations.
Kiesle, who served six years in prison after pleading no contest to molesting a young girl in 1995, was criminally charged again in April for allegedly hitting and killing a pedestrian while driving drunk in the priest’s Walnut Creek neighborhood. Kiesle pleaded not guilty in the ongoing criminal case.
Another notorious defrocked East Bay priest, Robert Ponciroli, has at least two new sex abuse allegations leveled against him. Internal church records show the church was aware of abuse allegations against the priest dating back to the 1970s.
“The man raped me, he physically raped me in that house right over there,” said Northern California resident Rick Pfisterer, discussing the allegations laid out in his recent lawsuit while standing in front of the Castro Valley church he attended as a boy. “He did God awful things.”
Pfisterer said he still bares the emotional scars from the abuse, which he alleges lasted for more than a year. He told his father about the abuse, he said, but was only punished further.
“The priest had gotten my home phone and talked to my dad prior to me getting home and telling him what was going on,” Pfisterer said. “And I got beat for lying to him. And so, I never said another word to anyone.”
Like the hundreds of other new plaintiffs suing the church, Pfisterer says it’s taken decades to come forward with his story, spending the years in-between struggling with addiction and urges to harm himself. His wife, he said, has been his savior, helping him take a stand against those haunting memories.
“I’ve tried to O.D. my whole life, until I met my wife,” Pfisterer said. “I can’t outrun the memory, so I might as well stand up to them.”
NBC Bay Area’s investigation into the clergy abuse claims continues, as hundreds of more lawsuits are expected by the end of the year and there are lots of potential leads to follow. We’ll continue reporting on this issue.