Fresno's Bishop Faces Tough Questions

March 18, 2009 10:17:42 PM PDT
Fresno's top Catholic official underwent tough questions Wednesday in court. Two brothers are suing the diocese accusing church officials of covering up sexual abuse. Monsignor Anthony Herdegen admits he molested George and Howard Santillan. We learned Monsignor Herdegen is still a priest. The abuse happened more than 30-years ago. One of the victims testified the abuse ruined his life.

59-year-old George Santillan walked out of court using a cane. He said his family raised him to trust the Catholic Church and his Monsignor Anthony Herdegen. Santillan was an altar boy at Saint John's parish in Wasco. Santillan said the monsignor started molesting him in 1959. He testified, "When I would go mow the lawn and sweep, (Monsignor Herdegen) would tell me that I must be pretty sore. He would say, 'Here let me give you a back massage.' "

Santillan said the molestation grew more graphic, happened on church grounds and lasted four years. Jurors saw a video taped deposition where Monsignor Herdegen admitted he molested George. Despite that admission, Fresno's Bishop John Steinbock testified Monsignor Herdegen retains the title "retired priest."

Bishop Steinbock did testify he could ask the Vatican to remove Herdegen from the priest hood, but the bishop said, "There will be no reason for me to do that, because he is in no position to harm children ... When someone has sexually abused a child ... you want to make sure he doesn't have contact with children."

The church's attorney said they don't dispute the sexual abuse happened. But they're fighting allegations that top level church officials knew about the abuse and tried to cover it up.

Monsignor Herdegen now lives in Milwaukee. The Bishop said the monsignor has no pastoral duties and cannot publicly celebrate mass. The Bishop retakes the witness stand Thursday afternoon.

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