LAKEPORT, Calif., May 5 (AP)--Hanging in the front office of Holy Family Elementary School, a polished brass plaque reads: "First Catholic school in Lake County. Congratulations! Nov. 11, 1998."
But next month, Holy Family will become the first Catholic school to close in Lake County--victim of a sex-and-money scandal involving the ex-bishop that left the Diocese of Santa Rosa $15 million in debt and left Northern California parishioners feeling betrayed.
"If you want to see who's paying, we're paying," says Tom Lincoln, whose 9-year-old daughter will be among those without a Catholic classroom when Holy Family shuts down.
A new bishop, Daniel F. Walsh, was appointed in April to lead the diocese back to fiscal and spiritual stability.
Trouble in the diocese surfaced early last year when The Press Democrat of Santa Rosa reported that then-Bishop G. Patrick Ziemann had covered up the 1996 theft of church money from St. Mary of the Angels parish in Ukiah by the Rev. Jorge Hume Salas.
In July 1999, Salas filed a civil lawsuit in which he alleged the bishop had coerced him into a two-year sexual relationship in return for keeping quiet about the theft. Ziemann abruptly resigned, admitting the affair but claiming it was consensual. In late April, the diocese settled with Salas for $535,000.
Those bombshells were followed by the discovery that years of reckless spending and hefty payouts on other sexual misconduct cases had left the diocese $15 million in debt. Some of the money had been lost in risky investments in the United States and Luxembourg.
"It was horrible. It was one of those situations where you picked up the paper and saw the headlines, and you said, 'This can't be.' But it was," says Lincoln.
"It is unbelievable," agrees Monsignor John Brenkle, a St. Helena pastor recruited to help lead the diocese out of its financial troubles. "Somebody said if you took our story to Hollywood, they'd throw you out."
The fallout has buffeted parishes across the diocese, which stretches from the lush Napa Valley to the solitary splendor of the North Coast.
Many churches and schools lost their savings and special funds.
The St. Rose parish in Santa Rosa lost about $1.9 million, mostly money raised for a new building at the parish school. Some had come from schoolchildren who donated their allowances.
In Eureka, about 200 miles north of San Francisco, parents and community leaders scrambled to raise $1.6 million to keep St. Bernard High School open after the diocese yanked a promised subsidy of about $600,000.
Eureka benefactors demanded that their contributions not go into diocesan bank accounts but into a special fund under administration of a nonprofit community organization.
Parishioners vented some of their hurt and betrayal in a series of town meetings led by Brenkle and other members of a volunteer financial cleanup crew this February.
"We've given you the broom," a Petaluma parishioner said at one of the meetings. "Get rid of the old regime."
Toni Kuhry, who helped form a committee at her church to deal with the fallout, said the scandals have created a "revolutionary" feeling among some parishioners. "What we would like to put into place is a checks-and-balances system," giving church members and parish priests more voice, along with the bishop, Kuhry said.
The diocese plans to launch a $600,000 fund-raising campaign to try to recoup losses. Brenkle says he'll be happy if the diocese gets half that amount. He notes that giving is good--and up in some cases--at individual parishes, something he interprets as a sign people haven't given up on their own churches.
"I am very, very optimistic. We're still going through a purgatory, and there's still a lot of anger there, but I do see that crises mobilize people, and I do see that as a diocese we are getting mobilized," he said.
On a mild April day, Lake County's first Catholic school is alive with the shrieks and laughter of youngsters playing tag on a grassy field that backs up into rounded hills splendid in spring greenery.
Many of the students know they won't be coming back in September, said the principal, Sister Judith Ann Wright.
"Everybody's sad," she said.
The school, which started five years ago in temporary quarters with 13 students, now has 48 attending classes in modular buildings that were dedicated 18 months ago. The diocese has announced that it will not make the $65,000 annual payments that Ziemann had promised on the buildings.
Some parents hope to keep the school going as a nondenominational effort in another location, but others can't face the thought of starting over.
"It's just too overwhelming," said Mary Frazell, her eyes watering as she recalled the hours of work that went into Holy Family school.
Though some are so angry they've left the church, most have not."This hasn't taken their faith," says Kuhry. "Their faith is not based on this hierarchical system. It's based upon a belief in Jesus Christ and the sacraments and the community of believers."
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