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July 10, 2010

STEPHANIE SALTER: Recycled script: A Catholic priest with an expensive secret life

TERRE HAUTE — The only thing missing is a gazebo-style hot tub.

That was my first thought after reading several news stories last week about a longtime Catholic priest in Waterbury, Conn., who has been charged with first-degree larceny for allegedly stealing about $1.3 million from his church and diocese.

The money, police say, went to sustain the Rev. Kevin Gray’s lavish, secret lifestyle, which reportedly included male escorts, expensive dinners and gifts, trips, an apartment in New York City and tuition at Harvard for a young male friend.

Officials in the Hartford Diocese said they asked local police to investigate Gray after their requests for seven years’ worth of parish financial reviews went unheeded.

When Gray’s parishioners at Sacred Heart Church in Waterbury were told last month why their pastor had been removed and was being investigated, they were shocked and heartbroken, according to an archdiocese spokesman.

My second thought: I saw this movie 17 years ago — only it was set in San Francisco, and the priest and church had different names. The priest’s secret, lavish lifestyle also included a house by the Pacific Ocean that most of his parishioners didn’t even know he owned. In the yard of the house was a gazebo-style hot tub.

People who tend to view any negative story about the Catholic Church as “Catholic bashing” will, no doubt, see my tale of déjá vu all over again as more bashing. As someone who has examined the underbelly of the church — reachable through its hierarchy — and still remains a practicing Roman Catholic, I see it as a story of deep faith in a core church that transcends its managers.

In the summer of 1993, while living and working in San Francisco, I began digging with two other San Francisco Examiner reporters — Elizabeth Fernandez and Dennis Opatrny — into a story of misappropriated church money. That story led to a collaboration with a local radio news team and to a series of stories about corruption, cover-up and colossal mismanagement in the San Francisco Archdiocese.

Like Watergate, our series began with a single incident: The week before Easter, the pastor of my very own church was brutally beaten in his home near the Pacific, a house few parishioners knew even existed. A cryptic announcement made before all Masses asked us to pray for Father Martin, who was in critical condition, but we were advised to let the archdiocese keep us informed about the situation.

Before Fernandez, Opatrny, the radio team and I were finished, we would produce an investigative series and dozens of follow-up stories over three years about a sorry saga that reached from the parish level to the archbishop’s office.

In the wake of the initial series, the Examiner would win an award for best investigative reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists, and John Quinn, the brilliant but troubled archbishop of San Francisco, would step down.

Father Martin Greenlaw would be convicted on 22 felony counts of embezzling more than $200,000 from my church and from the archdiocese. He’d get a year of house arrest for that, but would then spend a year in jail for another embezzlement conviction on money stolen from one of his previous parishes.

Greenlaw’s mentor, an influential monsignor named Patrick O’Shea, would be defrocked, arrested twice and charged with 224 counts of child molestation. O’Shea would avoid prosecution both times because of statute of limitations rulings on the abuse charges, but he, too, would be convicted of embezzling about $200,000. Eleven years after first being accused, he also would finally admit — during depositions in a civil lawsuit — that he molested altar boys in the 1960s and ’70s.

Because O’Shea’s attorneys managed to stall the case for years, the monsignor escaped major jail time, but he was at the center of dozens of civil settlements eventually agreed to by the archdiocese. By October 2005, well after I moved from California, the church had settled 32 of 60 molestation suits involving O’Shea and other clerics, for a whopping $42.3 million.

All three of us Examiner reporters were Catholic, but as soon as our stories began to appear, we might as well have belonged to a cult that sacrifices humans. We and our newspaper were denounced from pulpits as Catholic bashers. Our professional ethics and personal integrity were questioned. Bay Area Catholic faithful were encouraged to cancel their Examiner subscriptions.

At one point, before he left his post, Archbishop Quinn referred publicly to our stories as “journalistic terrorism.”

The few brave souls willing to be quoted on the record in the initial 1994 series received treatment similar to ours. Despite vindication in spades as the years rolled on, public apologies from church leaders to those people — nuns, teachers, laymen and women — were not forthcoming.

Reporting that series was the most challenging work I’ve ever faced in my career. Thursday, I’ll share some of the details of the process, along with reactions of some church officials. Many sound as if they were uttered last week. Among the responses was an angry letter written to the Examiner in 1996 by John Quinn’s replacement as San Francisco archbishop, William J. Levada.

Levada now heads the powerful Vatican office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which Pope Benedict XVI occupied as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger under Pope John Paul II. Among other duties, that office handles complaints to Rome about priests and members of religious orders.

As many similarities as I noticed between our 1990s San Francisco story and the current story in Waterbury, one difference stands out.

In a June 22 report, Eamon McNiff of ABC News quoted at length the Rev. John Gatzak, spokesman for the Hartford Archdiocese. Gatzak told McNiff the church could not possibly have opted to keep its accusations against Father Gray private.

“That’s certainly not the way the church needs to operate in this day and age,” Gatzak said. “We need total transparency. There is no way something like this could have, or should have been swept under the rug.”

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or

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