Diocese's Independent Review Board assesses allegations of sexual abuse

In photo above, three members of the Diocese of Sacramento's Independent Review Board are, left to right: Thomas Flynn, Patricia Aguiar and Judge Talmadge Jones.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Talmadge Jones, who retired in 2007 after 18 years of service on the bench, approaches his role as chair of the Diocese of Sacramento’s Independent Review Board (IRB) in a similar way, assessing information and evidence from all sides and striving to be fair to all parties involved. He says his judicial background gives him an appreciation for precedent, proof and fairness for all.

“The review board is an integral part of ensuring the safety of children and vulnerable adults in the diocese. What I bring is a sense of fairness as a judge – something I did every day,” says Jones, who has chaired the board for the past 10 years. “When you put the black robe on, it reminds you that you have to be fair. I don’t wear a robe when I’m on the board, but my role is the same: to make sure that everything is even handed and that we don’t let passion and bias affect our recommendations.

“We serve in an advisory role. The final decisions are Bishop Jaime Soto’s, and if we do our job right, we give him an informed recommendation, based upon how we – as people from all walks of life – view the evidence. My job is to make sure that the process is fair.”

Jones, who earlier in his career served for 18 years as a deputy attorney general with the California Department of Justice and as director of the state’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing, is one of nine members who make up the IRB.

Since 2002, the Diocese of Sacramento has had an Independent Review Board to assess allegations of sexual abuse. The review board was mandated by Article 2 of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People (of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops), requiring dioceses to have a review board. The majority of members will be laypersons not in the employ of the diocese to ensure the board’s independent nature.

IRB members assist Bishop Soto in assessing and investigating all allegations of sexual abuse of minors and in assessing fitness for ministry of diocesan clergy. The board also reviews the diocese’s policies and procedures for dealing with sexual abuse of minors. The board can act both retrospectively and prospectively on sexual abuse cases and can give advice on all aspects of the responses required. Jones is the third chair of the IRB since it was established, with Judges Robert Puglia and Raul Ramirez preceding him.

Jones, who with his wife, Carolyn, has three adult children, says his legal and judicial service inspired him to be involved with two passions over the past few decades -- preventing child abuse as well as youth violence. On the Sacramento Superior Court, while he was presiding judge of the juvenile court from 1991 to 1994, he “did two solid years of child abuse cases and spent my evenings reading social workers’ reports,” he recalls. “Sometimes it got toxic and frankly I saw everything in that assignment – sometimes the worst in our society.”

After his years on the juvenile court, he was involved for 28 years with The Child Abuse Prevention Center, a state, national and international service, training, advocacy and resource center dedicated to protecting children and building healthy families. In 1997, he was a founding member of Project SAVE (Safe Alternatives and Violence Education), which for more than 20 years has brought teams of police and sheriff officers to teach first-time youth offenders about the dangers of weapons and violence on or near a school campus.

The members of the IRB include people of diverse professional backgrounds and occupations – from the judiciary, law enforcement, mental health, education, social work and victim psychological services. Six of the nine members are laypersons; three are clergy or religious. In addition to Jones, members are Deacon Luigi Del Gaudio, Connie Koppes, Pat Aguiar, Thomas Flynn, Anthony Da Vigo, Jason Isacson, Sister of Mercy Eileen Enright and Msgr. Albert O’Connor (term concluded January 2019).

Jones says one of the IRB’s greatest strengths is its diversity. “We as a collective bring a variety of expertise and individual gifts to the table,” he says. “We are looking at our tasks from all angles of humanity. Each of us appreciates the need for clarity, enforceability and fairness to all parties. The people of the diocese should feel comfortable knowing the board is helping the bishop carry out child protection.”

Referring specifically to his role as chair, Jones says the process with each complaint considered is one of working toward gaining a consensus among the members. When consensus is reached, he will often prepare a written recommendation to Bishop Soto based on what he hears.

“I listen carefully to what the board members have to say and I try to encapsulate all their views in the recommendation. My role is legalistic, but we are not a criminal court. We make a recommendation based on common sense, fairness and impartiality, making sure we have all the evidence we can to make that recommendation.”

As an elder at Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church, Jones brings a clear sense of spirituality to his work. “It’s important that God is up front in what we do and we are in the back seat, so to speak. I try to keep a spiritual side to what we are doing on the board, as we really need the Lord to help us make these important recommendations.”

Patricia Aguiar, a longtime member of St. Anthony Parish in Sacramento, has served on the IRB since 2006. She holds a master’s degree in social work from the University of Michigan and worked for 32 years in child welfare services, 29 of those for the state of California. She and her husband, Alfonso Ramirez, have one adult son.

Aguiar’s professional work in child abuse prevention and intervention inspired her to serve on the board, so that she could bring her knowledge to help the local church respond to the clergy sexual abuse crisis from a moral and legal perspective.

“As a practicing Catholic it was painful to hear about sexual abuse going on, so when I was asked I knew I needed to serve in this capacity,” she recalls. “With my background, experience and passion for fairness, I wanted to be involved in how all this is discerned. I was concerned about what happens to victims – what we do for them – and what is fair to the alleged perpetrator. I thought the role of the board was crucial, to be of help in a time of great chaos.”

Aguiar notes there’s been “a very concerted effort” on the part of the diocese to be in compliance with the U.S. bishops’ charter, and that policies and procedures for safe environment “make sure the diocese is doing everything possible to make every child safe.” She has received safe environment training as part of serving as a catechist in faith formation at St. Anthony Parish.

She commends Bishop Soto “for being totally committed to following the law and the procedures that have been developed in cooperation with the IRB. The diocese has not only followed the letter but the spirit of the law.”

The diocese needs to be “in constant communication with the faithful” during this difficult time in the church, she says. “The loss of trust is a huge issue.” She endorses the diocese’s decision to release the names of priests credibly accused of sexual abuse, after an independent investigator has reviewed thousands of records going back to 1950. Bishop Soto announced this action in a pastoral letter to the faithful on Oct. 18.

As an IRB member, Pat listened attentively during a “listening session” for parishioners at St. Anthony last August, where many views were aired about the current sexual abuse crisis. “What struck me and what I conveyed to Bishop Soto is the terror that some young families feel for their children in today’s society,” she notes. “They felt their children were safe at St. Anthony, given all the safe environment measures. Many were new parents to the Sacramento area and wanted to know which priests had credible allegations. So transparency is absolutely necessary. I understand full well that when the list is published, we want it to be comprehensive and correct. These are the kinds of measures that will rebuild some trust.”

She adds that laypeople need more information and education about what the diocese does to assist victims of sexual abuse and about the screening and formation of seminarians studying for the priesthood. “When people have the information, they are more informed and relieved. Every time there is news about clergy sexual abuse, we lose a little ground with people. Transparency right now is what people are looking for from the hierarchy.

“As board members, we make sure the diocese is doing everything possible to make sure allegations are investigated and victims are helped,” Aguiar says. “I take the role very seriously and sometimes it weighs on you. Investigations must be completely thorough. I appreciate our multidisciplinary approach, because one person doesn’t have all the answers. There’s no complacency among us…Serving on the board has been an opportunity to make sure the diocese was doing everything possible to make every child safe, and to immerse myself in an attempt to help the church ensure that we provide our children with the ultimate amount of safety.”

IRB member Thomas Flynn, a longtime member of Sacred Heart Parish in Sacramento, served as a federal prosecutor for Eastern District of California from 1983 to 2008 and as an administrative law judge for the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board from 2010 to 2016. He and his wife, Rita Spillane, have two adult sons.

Flynn, who has served alongside Jones and Aguiar on the board since 2008, believes the members of the board “approach their responsibilities with seriousness and compassion. They speak their minds. Everyone is concerned with ensuring that we are doing enough to protect the rights of the faithful…I am very impressed with what Bishop Soto has done to deal with the issues that come before us and the degree to which he has adopted our recommendations.”

One of the ways to help rebuild trust, he suggests, is to make the safe environment and transparency measures the diocese is taking more widely known among parishioners and the public at large. He also stresses the importance of continually asking both groups for their input on the extent of sexual abuse, its impact on victims, and ways in which future problems can be prevented.

“We need to educate the public and parishioners about the processes already in place,” he says. “We also need to solicit the input of the public and invite the help of parishioners in addressing this problem. Without the input from the victims of sexual abuse and their families, it is hard to find the best way to help them deal with the trauma they have suffered.”

Flynn notes that press coverage has focused, appropriately, on the horrible crimes suffered by victims, particularly children. Increased coverage and improved understanding of actions taken to prevent future abuses would help families understand their children are protected, he says.

“We cannot assure people that their children are safe, whether in our schools, parishes or other institutions, without making sure that they know the policies and safeguards that have been put in place and the education and training that is now required for those who work with their children,” Flynn says. “They need to know that we are trying to do all we possibly can to prevent and address sexual abuse.”


Keeping Our Promise to Protect

Learn more about the Diocese's Safe Environment programs, the Charter, and Audit Compliance at www.scd.org/safe-environment

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