Fighting on behalf of victims of sexual abuse, particularly children, has been central to Harris’s political identity for the better part of three decades. Harris specialized in prosecuting sex crimes and child exploitation as a young prosecutor just out of law school. She later touted her record on child sexual abuse cases and prosecuting pedophiles in television advertisements, splashy profiles, and on the trail as she campaigned for public office.
But when it came to taking on the Catholic Church, survivors of clergy sexual abuse say that Harris turned a blind eye, refusing to take action against clergy members accused of sexually abusing children when it meant confronting one of the city’s most powerful political institutions.
When Harris became San Francisco district attorney in 2004, she took over an office that had been working closely with survivors of sexual abuse to pursue cases against the Catholic Church. The office and the survivors were in the middle of a legal battle to hold predatory priests accountable, and Harris inherited a collection of personnel files involving allegations of sexual abuse by priests and employees of the San Francisco Archdiocese, which oversees church operations in San Francisco, and Marin and San Mateo counties.
The files had been compiled by investigators working under the direction of Terence Hallinan, the radical district attorney who Harris ousted in a contentious election campaign. Hallinan’s team had prosecuted cases of abuse that had occurred decades earlier and had gathered evidence as part of a probe into widespread clergy sexual misconduct.
Just six months before Harris took office, a U.S. Supreme Court decision overturned a California law that had retroactively eliminated the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution of child molestation cases. That shifted the focus to holding predators among the clergy accountable through civil cases and through a broader effort to bring attention to predators who had been shielded by the church.
Hallinan believed that the clergy abuse files were a matter of public record; Harris refused to release them to the public.
In her seven years as district attorney, Harris’s office did not proactively assist in civil cases against clergy sex abuse and ignored requests by activists and survivors to access the cache of investigative files that could have helped them secure justice, according to several victims of clergy sex abuse living in California who spoke to The Intercept.
“It went from Terence Hallinan going hundred miles an hour, full speed ahead, after the Catholic Church to Kamala Harris doing absolutely nothing and taking it backwards hundred miles an hour,” said Joey Piscitelli, a sexual assault survivor, who a jury found had been molested as a student while attending Salesian College Preparatory, a Catholic high school in Richmond, California.
Piscitelli had met with Hallinan’s office to discuss his case and the ongoing investigation into the church. But, he said, when Harris took over, his access to the office was shut off and his requests for clergy abuse files were ignored. Piscitelli resorted to handing out flyers and picketing outside the district attorney’s office on San Francisco’s McAllister Street.
Dominic De Lucca, a Burlingame, California, resident who says he was raped by a local priest when he was 12 years old, also said he was shocked that Harris declined to aggressively pursue clergy abuse cases and refused to release the files. “I remember Kamala Harris,” said De Lucca. “She didn’t want to have any meetings.” He went on, “She wanted the public to think this is an issue that happened years ago, that it doesn’t happen anymore. Let’s just move on.”
Terence McAteer, a resident of Nevada City, California, says he was raped as a child by Austin Peter Keegan, an infamous San Francisco priest. McAteer said he sees no value in Harris’s decision to conceal the clergy abuse files, which had been used to indict his abuser but remain secret to this day. “Why not tell the story?” said McAteer. “I have no problem with my file being released. I don’t have any great secrets. It’s already in the newspaper. I think the whole cloak of secrecy with the Catholic Church needs to be exposed.”
Kevin V. Ryan, the former U.S. Attorney for Northern California who worked with Hallinan’s office on the clergy abuse cases, also agreed that the files should be disclosed. “Credible allegations in my opinion should be released,” said Ryan. “I think they should be made public and I think it’s necessary not only for accountability but for the healing process to begin.”
Several survivors of clergy abuse said they believed that Harris had declined to release the files in deference to the Catholic Church, which has historically held sway as a major political force in San Francisco.
“The Roman Catholic Church is very powerful and I think they didn’t want to step on any toes, especially in San Francisco,” said De Lucca, citing the influence of former Archbishop William Levada, who oversaw the archdiocese when Harris was district attorney.
Harris’s presidential campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Intercept.
Mike Brown, director of communications at the San Francisco Archdiocese, said that his office has “cooperated with every district attorney and attorney general request for records every time.” Brown said he did not believe that the archdiocese attempted to influence the Harris’s decision not to release the clergy abuse files. He added that it was not his place to comment on her decisions. “What was in Kamala Harris’s head?” he said. “I don’t think I have any way of knowing that.”
The Catholic Church casts a long shadow over San Francisco politics, despite the city’s national reputation for social liberalism and counterculture. Generations of politicians have relied on the endorsement of the archdiocese, which maintained strong support among Irish, Italian, and Latin American immigrant communities.
David Talbot, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and longtime observer of city politics, said, “The San Francisco Archdiocese certainly — through Kamala’s days as district attorney and through the current day — wields significant influence in the city power structure.”
THE NATIONAL FOCUS on clergy sex abuse came in large part as a reaction to the shocking revelations of the 2002 Boston Globe series on clergy sex abuse in the Boston-area. The investigation revealed that, under the leadership of Cardinal Bernard Law, the Boston Archdiocese covered up for more than 70 priests accused of sexually assaulting children. Following the Globe’s report, media outlets across the country began investigations and found that local church leadership in various locations similarly failed to inform law enforcement of known pedophiles in the clergy and, in some cases, shifted abusers from parish to parish.
Hallinan, in his role as district attorney, responded to the story by requesting that the San Francisco Archdiocese provide 75 years of personnel files relating to sex abuse cases. “We want anything they have in their records,” Hallinan told reporters at the time. “We will see if there are enforceable cases, and if there are, we will prosecute.”
The effort made headlines — and engendered some criticism. The San Francisco Chronicle, for instance, editorialized that the investigation was merely a “fishing expedition.” Hallinan’s pursuit, though, also brought forward a wave of victims who said they had been raped or molested by clergy over the years. Just months after opening his inquiry, Hallinan used a grand jury to begin issuing indictments.
The Catholic Church personnel files collected by Hallinan were used to indict Keegan. The internal church records suggest that Keegan may have molested as many as 80 local children over the years. Keegan presided over the funeral of McAteer’s father, a prominent local San Francisco politician, who passed away in 1967. Over the following summer, Keegan brought McAteer to the Disneyland Hotel, where he allegedly molested and sodomized him.
The San Francisco Archdiocese spent $2.4 million defending Keegan from previous lawsuits over molestation accusations and continued paying the former priest a $900-per-month stipend after he left the priesthood. The former priest relocated to an orphanage in Mexico and was later apprehended by FBI agents to stand trial in San Francisco over Hallinan’s criminal charges.
While Hallinan was pursuing his investigation, McAteer spoke to Kevin Ryan, the former federal prosecutor, about the case. “It was Kevin who phoned me up,” said McAteer, “to tell me Hallinan had just gotten all the records from the archdiocese and they opened up the files, and — Kevin’s words, I can still hear them: ‘The fattest file was Peter Keegan.’”
During the investigation, Hallinan’s office issued an indictment for Salvatore “Sal” Billante, who had allegedly molested a teenager and allegedly witnessed the abuse against Piscitelli in Richmond before working as a youth pastor in San Francisco.
Rev. Patrick J. O’Shea, another former priest indicted by Hallinan, had faced decades of accusations that he groomed altar boys at various Catholic institutions across San Francisco, including Mission Dolores Basilica. O’Shea was accused of regularly bringing children to a lake house outside the city, where he would ply them with alcohol and molest them.
De Lucca, one of several men who accused O’Shea, said the former priest molested him on a trip to the lake house in 1978 when he was 12 years old. Other victims have said they were molested over 100 times by O’Shea at church facilities in the city and at the lake house.
THE WAVE OF criminal indictments meant that the San Francisco Archdiocese, under Levada, was suddenly facing repercussions. It could not have come as a total surprise to Levada, who had his own history of dealing with alleged abuses in the clergy’s ranks.
Levada had previously served as the archbishop of Portland, a role in which he had briefly removed Joseph Baccellieri, a priest accused of molesting a child, in 1992 — only to restore him two years later. According to the newspaper SF Weekly, Levada quietly provided payments to three male victims in exchange for their silence and a pledge not to sue the archdiocese. The Portland Archdiocese later became the first Catholic diocese to file for bankruptcy over child sex abuse scandals as it paid out over $50 million to settle hundreds of claims.
A few years later, in 1995, Levada left Portland to become archbishop of San Francisco. He learned in 1996 that a Marin County priest, Gregory Ingels, had been accused of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy. Still, Ingels was allowed to continue working and the matter was not reported to police. Instead, Ingels’s career flourished as the priest became an adviser to Levada, helping the church leader shape his approach to clergy sex abuse issues. Ingels was later brought up on molestation charges, including molesting two teenagers in the 1970s.
Nonetheless, Levada’s star would continue to rise in the church. In 2005, Pope Benedict XVI named Levada as the guardian of church doctrine, elevating the archbishop to one of the most powerful posts in the Vatican.
Toward the end of Levada’s 10-year tenure in San Francisco, the church faced a reprieve from Hallinan’s investigations. As church officials and former clergy members faced a slew of criminal charges, prosecutors faced a setback when, in June 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a 1994 California law that had extended the criminal statute of limitations in sex abuse cases — the law under which indictments had been issued against clergy members. Following the Supreme Court’s ruling, hundreds of accused abusers across the state walked free, including priests and clergy indicted in San Francisco such as O’Shea, Ingels, Keegan, and Billiante. Because the criminal cases came to a halt, the accusations made against these clergy could not be tried, and no finding of guilt was ever made.
The high-court ruling closed the door on criminal prosecutions over abuse that occurred in the past, but a new avenue remained open for civil cases. As Hallinan’s investigations unfolded in 2002, state Sen. John Burton, who represented San Francisco, authored legislation to waive the statute of limitations in civil cases, allowing victims of childhood sexual abuse a chance to seek justice in court with a one-year window to file suit.
The church, then under the leadership of Levada, the archbishop, characterized the effort to extend the statute of limitations as a plot to line the pockets of trial lawyers. The archdiocese newspaper, Catholic San Francisco, responded to Burton’s law with an article warning of a “swarm of lawsuits” as “lawyers aggressively seek sex abuse business.”
But the law was quickly passed. In 2003, hundreds of survivors including Piscitelli filed civil lawsuits against their alleged abusers, under the condition that they could show that the employers of abusers had known of allegations of misconduct and failed to act.
AS THE DRAMA of the church sex abuse cases was unfolding in 2003, Kamala Harris waged a bitter campaign to win the district attorney’s office, alleging that Hallinan had been “soft on crime.” Much of the old guard of San Francisco’s political establishment, which had grown wary of Hallinan’s pugnacious style and investigations of political leaders and police misconduct, backed Harris. The election went to runoff, which Harris handily won.
As the dust settled over the election campaign, hundreds of survivors were shifting their focus to civil court, hoping that they could take advantage of Burton’s law to hold the Catholic Church responsible for shielding predators.
“We were told office policy was we can’t provide you with anything.”
Because Piscitelli, De Lucca, and other survivors had spoken with Hallinan’s investigators, they were surprised when the new district attorney’s office appeared to shift course and declined to meet with them. “My jaw just dropped,” said De Lucca, who was by then working with the activist group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “SNAP was very upset about it.”
About a year after Harris took office, Piscitelli, whose lawsuit was already underway, wrote Harris to ask for assistance in his case against the Salesians of Don Bosco, the church institution that oversaw the school where he was abused. In the letter, which he shared with The Intercept, Piscitelli noted that his alleged abuser, Steven Whelan, was working at the Saints Peter and Paul Church in San Francisco, a position that placed him in an environment filled with children.
“I know you have files on clergy sex abusers in San Francisco, and you may have a file on him. Please send me that file,” wrote Piscitelli. “Several San Francisco Salesians, and other priests are being sued for sex abuse now, and you may be able to help their victims, and protect other kids from being new victims.”
When no response came, Piscitelli, who had become a volunteer activist with SNAP, began posting flyers and picketed the offices of the district attorney, accusing her of cozy ties with Levada, then the top Catholic official in the city.
Without any help from Harris, Piscitelli continued to pursue his case. During the trial, which took place in Contra Costa County in 2006, Piscitelli testified that when he was 14, Whelan, a teacher and vice principal at Salesian High School in Richmond, had masturbated in front of him while another priest, “Sal” Billante, had watched and expressed pleasure. The jury found that from 1969 through 1971, Whelan continued to molest and rape Piscitelli and told him that no one would believe him if he spoke out.
The trial made headlines as the church sought to discredit Piscitelli, but he won his case. In 2006, a jury awarded him $600,000 in damages. The Salesian order appealed the verdict, but an appellate court sided with Piscitelli.
By the time the judgment came down, Piscitelli had become a coordinator with SNAP and was continuing with his activism to highlight sexual abuse in the church. He picketed the church in San Francisco where Whelan had transferred and asked Harris to take action against other abusers he said were being sheltered by the church. Harris had under her control a tremendous cache of records related to abuse at the church, and even if criminal prosecution was no longer an option, Piscitelli felt that releasing them would ensure some measure of justice.
“It is not understandable that you have refused to release the documents that have been previously collected by DA Terence Hallinan, that spell out the names of the child rapists, and molesters who have wreaked havoc on children here,” Piscitelli wrote in a second letter to Harris in 2010, requesting the church personnel files.
Rick Simons, Piscitelli’s attorney, had served as a plaintiff’s liaison on the Clergy III consolidated lawsuit of over 100 similar cases. He said that he had received informal assistance from a number of district attorneys in the region, including Alameda County’s Nancy O’Malley, who had worked closely with victims and plaintiffs’ attorneys to suggest records to subpoena.
But Harris had stonewalled. Simons recalled phone conversations with Harris’s office in which no help was offered. He said, “We were told office policy was we can’t provide you with anything.”
SF WEEKLY, THE local alternative newspaper, pressed Harris to release the church abuse personnel files in 2005 and again in 2010. In both cases, her office refused. The newspaper revealed that shortly after being elected, Harris had worked with church officials and other prosecutors to conceal the clergy records, electing to only divulge clergy abuse files over the course of a criminal investigation, a possibility forestalled by the Supreme Court ruling.
Several California prosecutors signed a controversial protocol at the time with the Catholic Church to conceal similar sexual abuse documents. SF Weekly reported that the “protocol basically puts church officials on the honor system for turning over materials that they determine may be of relevance to the district attorney.”
Hallinan expressed outrage at the agreement and supported the effort to release the files. He told the magazine that he “wouldn’t do a deal like that for [the archdiocese] any more than I would if it were an Elks Club with a bunch of pedophiles. Those are the kinds of deals that have allowed the church sex scandal to go on as long as it has.”
In 2010, the files resurfaced as Harris sought statewide office as California attorney general. In a follow-up story, SF Weekly confirmed that Harris had the power to release the clergy sex abuse files as public record but had again refused.
“District Attorney Harris focuses her efforts on putting child molesters in prison,” Harris’s office responded in a statement to the paper. “We’re not interested in selling out our victims to look good in the paper. When this case was brought under Terence Hallinan, prosecutors took the utmost care to protect the identity and dignity of the victims. That was the right thing to do then and it’s the right thing to do now.”
The response baffled victims’ advocates and Hallinan, who reiterated his support for releasing the files. “It was just a flat-out insult,” said Piscitelli. “She could have redacted the names, blacked out the names and left them out.”
Joelle Casteix, founder of Survivors Taking on Predators, a national advocacy group for victims of clergy sexual abuse, said she was disappointed with the Harris statement. “Sunlight is the greatest disinfectant,” said Casteix. “Victims come forward because they are afraid that the person who hurt them is still out there, hurting other kids, or someone from the diocese is still lying about it. I haven’t met a single survivor who’s said, ‘Boy, am I glad they kept the documents for my case secret.’”
Elliot Beckelman, a former prosecutor in the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office who initially oversaw the clergy abuse files and handled the criminal investigation of clergy abuse, said he did not recall that the attorneys for survivors requested the documents. He did remember opposing the effort to release the documents to the press. “The only thing I remember is the SF Weekly asking,” said Beckelman.
Still, he said, he believes that Harris made the right choice in declining to release the documents. “I don’t think a district attorney should float that out there if a person can’t defend themselves,” Beckelman continued. “It’s a very serious charge, a sex crime.”
“The Catholics, like other minorities, feel picked upon, and I thought for the integrity of the investigation that we don’t have running press conferences to make out that the Catholics are worse than the Jews — which I am — or worse than the Hindus,” Beckelman said. “There’s always a balance that comes to sexual assault investigations.”
Others in the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, however, recall getting requests for files from victims. “I certainly remember receiving phone calls from attorneys representing victims and I can’t remember what we actually did,” said Erin Gallagher, a former investigator who worked with Beckelman on the clergy abuse cases at the district attorney’s office. “I don’t recall letters requesting documents, but as I said, but I do remember having a number of phone conversations. I don’t remember how those played out.”
The decision to conceal the San Francisco Archdiocese clergy abuse files stands in stark contrast to recent investigations into Catholic sex abuse across the country.
Over the last year, prosecutors have reopened wide-ranging investigations into systemic clergy sex abuse. Attorneys general in Iowa, New Mexico, Michigan, Illinois, and other states have asked the Catholic Church to produce internal files of clergy accused of sexual abuse.
Last August, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro released a 900-page report from a Pittsburgh grand jury listing 300 priests credibly accused of sexual misconduct. The report included internal church personnel documents, redacting the names of the victims, detailing dozens of cases of confidential letters making clear that incidents of clergy rape, molestation, and other forms of child sex abuse had been reported to high-level church officials. In case after case, church officials were made aware of misconduct and responded by moving the accused priests to parishes around Pennsylvania.
McAteer, one of the survivors who spoke to The Intercept, said his abuser had continued to rape children well after he had reported the incident. “I went to the church in ’77, wrote the archbishop, met with the archbishop, told him the story of what happened when I was raped by Father Keegan,” said McAteer. The church, he said, “covered it up” and allowed his abuser to continue raping children. With the church failing to report the abuse to authorities, Keegan was moved to Santa Rosa, California, where he was accused of raping or molesting at least 50 other children.
“I think the whole problem with this Catholic Church scandal is very rarely has anyone come clean. Finally, we saw in Pittsburgh — finally they said, ‘Let’s tell it like it is,’” McAteer said. “I know the San Francisco files are egregious as well. Why not tell the story so the Catholic Church can clean its act up?”
Piscitelli supports the Pennsylvania probe, as well as the other investigations of Catholic Church sex abuse in other states.
Last year, Piscitelli wrote a letter to current California Attorney General Xavier Becerra demanding that Becerra open an inquiry into clergy sexual abuse. Within weeks, Piscitelli received a response and a request to meet with state investigators. Becerra soon set up a tip line for other survivors to come forward and has demanded clergy abuse records from all 12 Catholic Church dioceses in California.
While previous prosecutions of clergy sex abuse have focused on individual priests or employees of the church, some are hoping the latest round investigations will lead to a more systemic look at the scandal. Kevin Ryan, the former federal prosecutor who worked closely with Hallinan’s office, said prosecutors could pursue charges under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a statute used to prosecute organized crime.
“There are still civil RICO potential charges, potential criminal RICO charges if there is a cover-up and it is ongoing,” said Ryan. “We need to know, we need accountability, and certainly we need to be prosecuting the cases we can and anyone involved in this activity should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
The San Francisco Archdiocese has told reporters that it is in discussions with an outside organization to review 4,000 personnel files over clergy abuse allegations, but has so far declined to release a list of priests accused of sexual abuse. Mike Brown, the spokesperson for the archdiocese, told The Intercept that he expects a list of names to be released over the summer this year.