Two Bay Area Catholic dioceses are allowing the priests they employ to remain in ministry despite lawsuits now accusing the men of sexually abusing children earlier in their careers, NBC Bay Area has confirmed.
The findings come amid an ongoing NBC Bay Area investigation into a flood of new child sex abuse complaints hitting Catholic institutions across the state. The civil lawsuits are the result of a 2019 California law that opened a three-year “rollback” window allowing new lawsuits for child sexual abuse based on claims generally barred by the statute of limitations.
Click here to watch part 1 of the NBC Bay Area investigation.
Among hundreds of new Northern California legal filings are startling charges against four Bay Area priests who still work in the area. The dioceses they serve said internal NBC Bay Area reviews did not support the allegations against the men and that it would be unfair to exclude them from the ministry.
Dan McNevin, a local leader of the victims’ advocacy group SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), said he was skeptical of such internal diocesan reviews.
“The bishops have an obligation to sideline these people,” McNevin said. “Not just for the victim, who is brave, but because the bishop is warned that this priest could be dangerous.”
Three of the accused priests – Fr. David Ghiorso, Msgr. Michael Harriman and Fr. Michael Mahoney – works under the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Either directly or through their lawyers, the three priests have refuted the allegations made against them.
The other priest – Reverend James Pulskamp – is the pastor of Star of the Valley Catholic Church in Santa Rosa. Pulskamp did not respond to NBC Bay Area’s request for comment, but Santa Rosa Bishop Robert Vasa said in a statement that he struggled to give credence to the allegation given the Priest’s stellar reputation over the past 50 years.
With one exception, the allegations against the priests are linked to two centers founded as homes for vulnerable children who were removed from troubled homes: St. Vincent’s School for Boys in San Rafael and the Hanna Boys Center in Sonoma.
The claims relate to events spanning nearly two decades, from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s. If true, the decades-old accusations expand what we know about the clergy abuse scandal in North America. California and suggests that the internal lists of “credibly accused” priests released by most Bay Area dioceses in recent years are still incomplete.
The plaintiffs bringing the charges have so far declined to be interviewed, but the prosecution, and in some cases their lawyers, are detailing the allegations.
Reverend James Pulskamp and the Hanna Boys Center
The oldest accusation targets Reverend Pulskamp when he was a priest at the Hanna Boys Center. The school and residential treatment center for vulnerable children has been a hot spot for child sexual abuse accusations in recent years.
Pulskamp is accused in a new trial of molesting a child in the 1970s.
“Because [the children there] are more vulnerable, they fall prey to the priests and the people who work there,” said Mary Alexander, a Bay Area attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of an anonymous plaintiff. “So that’s something we see all the time.”
While Pulskamp is now the pastor of his Santa Rosa church, he is listed as regent emeritus on the Hanna Boys Center website.
Bishop Vasa said Pulskamp remained in the ministry after an internal review board recommended that no action be taken against the priest. However, the bishop said the diocese will continue to investigate any new details that emerge.
Alexander said Pulskamp and all other priests facing new abuse charges should not work until more information comes out through the legal process.
“I think any priest who is still active and who is accused, that he should be put on administrative leave, that there should be no access to children,” Alexander said.
San Francisco Priests
According to the Archdiocese of San Francisco, the three accused priests were placed on leave pending internal investigations, but were returned to the ministry when the review board failed to confirm the allegations.
The archdiocese declined several interview requests from NBC Bay Area to discuss the cases, but in a statement called the priests “faithful and highly respected pastors” and said, “It would have been an injustice to them and to those they serve to keep them away from the prosecution after the review board decides.
One such priest, Fr. Michael Mahoney, is currently pastoring Our Lady of the Angels in Burlingame and is accused of molesting a second grade boy in the 1980s. His accuser, who sued in justice as “John Doe,” alleges Mahoney would watch him through the classroom window after the abuse. Mahoney declined to comment when reached by phone by NBC Bay Area.
Msgr. Michael Harriman & Fr. David Ghiorso: Allegations at St. Vincent’s School for Boys
The remaining priests, Msgr. Michael Harriman and Fr. David Ghiorso, face allegations that they abused children at St. Vincent’s School for Boys, who live at school away from their families.
NBC Bay Area has confirmed Harriman now faces at least one abuse allegation, while Ghiorso has multiple accusers.
Harriman retired from St. Cecilia Parish in San Francisco five years ago but continues to work as a priest, according to the archdiocese. Catholic directories show he was assigned to both Camp St. Vincent’s and Camp CYO in the early 1980s and is accused in a lawsuit of sexually abusing children while there.
The priest denied the allegation when contacted at his home by NBC Bay Area.
“There was an investigation and my innocence was proven,” said Harriman, who declined to answer any further questions.
Ghiorso, who later followed Harriman to camp CYO and St. Vincent in the mid-1980s, is also accused of abusing St. Vincent boys.
One of the plaintiffs, Gary Johnson, alleges in the civil complaint that he and other St. Vincent children were sex-trafficked by priests between the school and a remote Catholic summer camp in Sonoma County. known as CYO Camp in the early 1980s.
“Soon after these trips to Camp Armstrong began, the accused perpetrators rounded up the boys at night,” the lawsuit alleges. “After knocking out the boys, including plaintiff Johnson, with alcohol, the defendants then proceeded to engage in sexual acts with the boys, including plaintiff Johnson, or forced the boys to engage in sexual acts between them. The range of these sexual acts varied but included oral copulation and anal sex.
The lawsuit alleges Johnson was sent to another foster home when he reported the abuse to school officials.
“Rather than report the criminal sexual abuse to law enforcement or address the cause of Plaintiff Johnson’s abuse to protect others, St. Vincent’s immediately removed Plaintiff Johnson from St. Vincent’s and placed him in a foster home, ending his abuse.”
The second plaintiff in the lawsuit, Marcus Raymond Hill, alleges that he arrived in St. Vincent in 1989. For a period of about a year, according to the civil complaint, he was given wine and raped by Ghiorso while he served as an altar boy. .
A separate lawsuit, filed in April, accuses Ghiorso of repeatedly raping an unnamed plaintiff during his stay in St. Vincent between 1988 and 1991, beginning when the plaintiff was around 10 years old.
According to the lawsuit, Ghiorso’s accuser attempted to run away from the school because of the abuse and was heavily medicated by school officials while there “in an effort to control these explosions of behaviour”.
The plaintiff, according to the lawsuit, had repressed memories of the alleged abuse until an investigator working on behalf of the church contacted him while he was considering separate claims against the priest.
Ghiorso’s attorney, Donald “Duffy” Magilligan, strongly denied the charges in both trials.
“It’s a shame that a good man can be wrongfully accused in order to extract money, settlement money, from the Catholic Church,” Magilligan said of the lawsuit accusing Ghiorso. “It is shameful.”
Magilligan said he has evidence that refute the allegations against his client, although he declined to disclose what that evidence is.
“We’re not going to try our case in the media,” Magilligan said. “I confess that it would be a great story for you if you heard what this evidence was in this case, but we are going to try this case before a jury.”
Others might come ahead
On a recent trip to the Bay Area, Southern California attorney Michael Carney visited the San Francisco Public Library to examine a series of Catholic directories in its collection.
Carney said he was researching more than 300 Northern California clergy abuse cases his company was investigating or preparing to file, including dozens of charges against priests never publicly accused of abuse before. .
“Father Dave Ghiorso’s name is a name of interest to us, and specifically it is a name of interest to us in three separate claims cases,” Carney said.
These charges are separate from the claims of the other three plaintiffs, unrepresented by Carney, who have already filed lawsuits accusing the priest of abuse.
Carney declined to discuss specifics of the allegations, but said they relate to the priest’s time at St. Vincent.
Magilligan said he could not comment on what Carney told NBC Bay Area because he is unaware of the specific allegations and they are not currently included in any legal filings.
So far, more than 200 lawsuits have been filed in Northern California accusing priests or church workers of abuse. It’s likely that more new names will emerge by the time the three-year look-back window closes on December 31.
Even so, Carney said many victims would likely never come forward, leaving the true depths of the scandal a mystery.
“No matter what happens, no matter how much the public helps the survivors, they’ve decided for themselves that it’s a secret they’ll never tell anyone,” Carney said.
NBC Bay Area’s investigation is still ongoing and we will continue to update this story as we learn more.