OAKLAND — It’s been more than 50 years since Sharon McCann reported being sexually abused by her priest to her principal, regarding one of the “most prolific” child molesters in the Bay Area.
She was 6 years old when the abuse started, and now at 65, she and two other sex assault victims have filed a lawsuit against the Oakland Catholic Diocese, alleging that the diocese knew about decades of abuse by Monsignor Vincent Breen, and did nothing.
Breen was at Holy Spirit parish in Fremont for 29 years from 1953 to 1982, and was accused of molesting at least eight girls ages 7 to 14. But the actual number is estimated at closer to 100.
“It forever impacted my life,” said McCann on Wednesday at a press conference in front of the Cathedral of the Light in Oakland, announcing the lawsuit.
Assembly Bill 218, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Sunday, gives childhood sex assault survivors a three-year window to bring a civil lawsuit against any perpetrator, employer or third party who was aware of the misconduct. It also extends the statute of limitations for child sexual assault victims to file civil lawsuits, now up to their 40th birthday.
Previously, lawsuits could be filed up until the victim was 26 years old. A victim also can sue within five years from the date of discovery of a psychological injury, compared with three years before the new law, according to the women’s attorney Joseph George.
McCann was 13 years old when she first reported the abuse to a nun/principal. She said the abuse had started in 1960, when she was 6 years old, and continued until 1967 when she was about 12, according to a 1981 Fremont police report. It was believed that the nun reported the assaults to the diocese, although it would be another decade until a formal investigation was launched.
Breen was not criminally charged; instead he was forced to retire. In 2005, the diocese acknowledged the years of molestation abuse allegations and then-Bishop Allen Vigneron publicly apologized. Breen died in 1986.
McCann described the years of abuse she endured, including being cornered by the priest when she would count the monetary donations collected during Mass. The money coin counter machine was in his room, and whenever she had to go in there, she was cornered.
“You couldn’t get up because you’re a fifth- or sixth-grade girl, and he was a grown man and he was stronger than us,” McCann said.
She said she wished she would have punched him, or fought back. But instead, she turned her head during the abuse. He would ask her, “Do you like that?” she said.
Once she reported the assaults to her principal, she believes the nun reported it to the diocese, because she wasn’t molested in her eighth-grade year.
In 1973, the same nun received further reports about allegations that the monsignor was fondling third- and fourth-grade girls when he was out on the schoolyard. McCann added that he would wear a cape, and would molest the girls under it.
Again, the nun reported the attacks to the diocese, but was transferred to another school in Sacramento. No action was taken against Breen at the time, according to the lawsuit.
Donna Stone, now 59, also spoke out about her abuse she endured by the priest. Similar to McCann, she too reported the abuse in 1977 by hand-delivering a letter to the diocese when she was a teenager But, nothing was done, she said.
In a letter read out loud by the third victim and plaintiff in the lawsuit, Judy Ash, she said, “Our innocence was stolen.”
“Our predator was someone we believed would protect, care and love us. Love us as Jesus loves us. In our child’s eyes, if we were special to the pastor, we were special to God,” Ash said.
Instead, he was never brought to justice or served time in prison, she said.
The Oakland Diocese chancellor, Stephen Wilcox, said it would be premature to comment on the allegations, since the church has not yet been served with the lawsuit.
Breen, however, is named in the diocese’s “credible accusations” list as having been accused of sexual abuse by a minor from the 1950s to the 1980s. He resigned as a pastor from Holy Spirit in March 1982.
Besides Holy Spirit in Fremont, his other assignments include Serra High School, an all-boys school in San Mateo, and St. Mary in Walnut Creek.
“The Catholic Diocese of Oakland has progressed in its efforts to address the needs of survivors of childhood sexual abuse. We are committed to continuing to improve these efforts,” Wilcox said in a statement to this newspaper.
The diocese said it has more than 33,300 volunteers, employees and clergy who been trained to spot warning signs of predatory behavior and know how to report suspicious activity of anyone who might want to harm children.
Anyone with information concerning potential sexual misconduct by a clergy member should contact the police, and can contact the chancellor of the diocese, Stephen Wilcox, at email@example.com or 510-267-8334.