San Francisco

Victims Question Kamala Harris' Record on Clergy Abuse

Joey Piscitelli was angry when Kamala Harris emerged as a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination. It brought back the frustration he felt in the 2000s, when he was a newly minted spokesman for clergy sex abuse victims and Harris was San Francisco’s district attorney.

Piscitelli says Harris never responded to him when he wrote to tell her that a priest who had molested him was still in ministry at a local Catholic cathedral. And, he says, she didn’t reply five years later when he wrote again, urging her to release records on accused clergy to help other alleged victims who were filing lawsuits.

“She did nothing,” said Piscitelli, today the Northern California spokesman for SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Survivors of clergy abuse and their attorneys say that Harris’ record on fighting sex abuse within the Catholic Church is relevant as the U.S. senator from California campaigns for the presidency as a tough-on-crime ex-prosecutor who got her start prosecuting child sexual abuse cases. They complain that Harris was consistently silent on the Catholic Church’s abuse scandal — first as district attorney in San Francisco and later as California’s attorney general.

In a statement to The Associated Press, the Harris campaign underscored her record of supporting child sex abuse victims but did not address her silence regarding victims abused by Catholic clerics.

“Kamala Harris has been a staunch advocate on behalf of sexual assault victims, especially child sexual assault victims,” the statement said, noting that she “used her position as District Attorney to create the first unit focused on child sexual assault cases in the office’s history.”

The statement said she withheld documents regarding clergy sexual abuse from attorneys and news reporters to protect the identities of victims — reasoning faulted by victims and their lawyers.

Catholics make up large voting blocs in the city and the state, accounting for roughly a quarter of the population in both San Francisco’s metro area and across California.

“There’s a potential political risk if you move aggressively against the church,” said Michael Meadows, a Bay Area attorney who has represented clergy abuse victims. “I just don’t think she was willing to take it.”

Before Harris was elected district attorney in 2003, a U.S. Supreme Court decision made it impossible to pursue criminal prosecutions of child sexual abuse cases after statutes of limitation had expired. For many victims, that left lawsuits in civil court as the only path for seeking justice.

After Harris took office as DA in 2004, attorneys representing abuse survivors in civil cases asked her office to release church records on abusive priests that had been gathered by her predecessor, Terence Hallinan.

Harris refused, a decision her office said was intended to protect the identities of clergy abuse victims. “It would be virtually impossible to release records without compromising the identity of the victims,” two of her top aides said in a joint letter.

Victims and their attorneys scoffed at the explanation, contending it would be a simple matter to avoid identifying the victims. “What she was saying was utter nonsense,” said Meadows, the Bay Area attorney. “All she had to do was redact any identifying information.”

Victims’ lawyers said Harris’ office also resisted informal requests to help them with their cases, at a time when other district attorneys or their staff members were making themselves available.

“Of all the DAs in the Bay Area, she’s the only one who wouldn’t cooperate with us,” said Rick Simons, an attorney who was the court-appointed coordinator for clergy abuse cases filed in Northern California, as well as Piscitelli’s personal lawyer.

In 2006, Piscitelli won his civil suit against the Salesians of Don Bosco, a Catholic religious order that employed his abuser, the Rev. Stephen Whelan, after a jury trial. The verdict was upheld on appeal two years later.

By 2010, Harris was running for state attorney general, once again highlighting her work for victims of sexual abuse. With new urgency, Piscitelli wrote Harris his second letter, asking her to release the clergy personnel files her predecessor had obtained. “We all know you can redact the names of the children from the documents,” he wrote. “Nobody is being fooled.”

At about the same time, the SF Weekly renewed a previous public records request for the church documents on sexual abuse. Harris again refused to release them, her office still adamant that the decision had been made with the victims in mind. “We’re not interested in selling out our victims to look good in the paper,” her office said in a statement.

After Harris was elected California attorney general in 2010, she continued to avoid taking a stand on the Catholic Church’s abuse problem, according to Piscitelli and other advocates. They say that the state’s current attorney general, Xavier Becerra, has been more aggressive in dealing with the issue.

When Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro released an explosive grand jury report in August 2018 finding that 300 priests had molested more than 1,000 victims over 70 years, Piscitelli and other SNAP members staged a protest outside Becerra’s office, demanding he take similar action.

The next day, Piscitelli said, Becerra’s office invited him and others at the protest to a meeting where district attorneys from across the state joined a conference call and listened as victims and advocates suggested avenues for inquiry.

Although Becerra has not officially confirmed an investigation, his office has sent letters to dioceses throughout the state seeking church documents, and his website is soliciting tips from victims and other sources.

Anne Barret Doyle, co-director of the advocacy group, attended the meeting at the attorney general’s office with Piscitelli and other SNAP members. “The current attorney general is showing an awareness of the ongoing problem of clergy sexual abuse in California that Kamala Harris didn’t exhibit at all,” she said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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