Attacks on San Francisco Priest Aim to Test Abp. Cordileone

Recent reports about accusations made 10 years ago against Fr. Joseph Illo leave out key facts and misrepresent the subsequent court case.

The embattled pastor of a San Francisco parish has been the target of an unrelenting campaign aimed at pressuring Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone to oust him. At the same time, the charges against Father Joseph Illo are being used as part of a larger effort to lobby Pope Francis to remove the archbishop, according to local observers. This week, the Archdiocese of San Francisco quietly announced that a priest has been assigned as chaplain at the parish’s school.

The connection between the efforts to push out both priest and archbishop became national news when more than 100 “prominent Catholics” published a full-page open letter to Pope Francis in the April 16 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. “Please replace Archbishop Cordileone,” the letter asked the Pope. Many of the signers are known to oppose Catholic teaching on marriage.

Among the letter’s grievances against the archbishop was his selection of Father Illo as the pastor of Star of the Sea Parish. Father Illo “marginalizes women’s participation in the church by banning girls from altar service,” the letter claimed (Father Illo explained his altar-server policy to CWR in January; he later agreed to let girls serve as acolytes at school Masses at Star of the Sea, while retaining his “boys-only” policy for parish Masses, as this move had been welcomed by regular Mass-goers). Father Illo also “inexplicably distributed to elementary school children an age-inappropriate and potentially abusive, sexually-oriented pamphlet,” the letter states (Father Illo apologized for the incident as an “oversight” and said the pamphlet—an examination of conscience—should have been given to the parents instead of the children). Finally, the letter to the Holy Father alleges that Father Illo has a “troubled history of questionable judgment as a pastor outside our diocese.”

It now appears that the “troubled history” ascribed to Father Illo refers to a civil settlement from a decade ago. Certain documents concerning the case were recently distributed to parents and teachers at Star of the Sea School, and a series of local media reports indicate that some parents have renewed calls for Father Illo’s removal in light of this case. This week the archdiocese announced that Father Vito J. Perone has been assigned as chaplain at Star of the Sea School, although Father Illo has not been removed from his post as parish administrator.

In March 2005, a San Joaquin County Superior Court jury found that Father Illo had inflicted emotional distress on an 11-year-old girl who had accused his associate pastor, Father Francis Arakal, of sexual misconduct in September 2001. A criminal investigation after the girl’s accusation had found no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of Father Arakal, but the following year the girl’s mother filed a lawsuit against Father Arakal, Father Illo, and the Diocese of Stockton, alleging sexual battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress, among other things. The allegations involved the 11-year-old and her older sister. The civil case lasted several years, and ended in a three-week jury trial that unanimously dismissed all charges but one: that Father Illo and Father Arakal had caused the 11-year-old girl “emotional distress” after Father Illo brought Father Arakal into his office to speak with the girl regarding her allegations. The court ordered $20,000 in damages be paid to the girl’s family. However, the judge ordered the plaintiffs to pay the priests more than $23,000 in legal fees. According to a source familiar with the case, the defendants could have asked for punitive damages as well, but the diocese decided in favor of mercy toward the plaintiffs.

During both the criminal investigation and the lawsuit, Father Illo remained a priest in good standing at St. Joseph’s. He continued as the pastor there for five years after the lawsuit was settled. He was made parish administrator of Star of the Sea Parish in San Francisco by Archbishop Cordileone in 2014.

Father Illo has been directed by Archbishop Cordileone not to speak to the media about the lawsuit. However, parishioners from St. Joseph’s have gone on record in defense of their former pastor. 

On April 25, many parishioners of St. Joseph’s drove 100 miles to attend a Saturday evening vigil Mass (nicknamed a “Mass Mob”) to show their support for Father Illo. CWR spoke to some of those present about what happened at St. Joseph’s more than a decade ago.

Modesto resident Malissa Souza has been attending St. Joseph’s since 1969. She said she attended the civil trial and did not believe the testimony given against the priests, nor, as far as she knows, did any other parishioners. She said the mother of the accuser had pursued a romantic relationship with Father Illo, who had refused her advances. These details were reported by local media during the trial and were mentioned in court documents and by other St. Joseph parishioners who spoke to CWR, but were missing from many of the most recent media reports on the case.

Father Illo revitalized St. Joseph’s when he arrived in 2000, Souza said. Under his leadership, the parish grew “by leaps and bounds.”

Father Arakal also has kept the support of the St. Joseph community, she said. “The people requested we get [Father Arakal] back,” she said, “and he has since returned to the parish.”

Donna Elson, also of Modesto, served as Father Illo’s secretary at St. Joseph’s for eight years.  She attended the Mass Mob to let Father Illo know “that we love him and care about him.”

She noted, “He is a very holy and traditional priest, and sticks strictly to Catholic teaching. He has a love for the poor, and increased our volunteer participation in the St. Vincent de Paul Society from one to 30 volunteers.  He was compassionate, and would always drop what he was doing to rush to the hospital if he was called to anoint someone.”

One of the ministries he introduced, she said, was St. Joseph’s Bread, a program to feed the homeless. She also noted his Marian devotion and said he had introduced Masses in different languages for members of different ethnic communities.

One group he did rile, she said, were the pro-choice Catholics in the parish. When he arrived, he began preaching against abortion. Elson said, “The pro-choice parishioners approached him and asked him to stop. He said no, that it was Church teaching and that he was going to talk about it. So the pro-choice people left.”

Father Arakal was away from St. Joseph’s for six months while the police investigated the abuse claims, Elson explained, but was allowed to return when no criminal charges were filed. “He’s a wonderful priest,” she added. “No one believes the allegations.”

Peter Herrmann, who served as a lector at the Saturday evening Mass at Star of the Sea, has been active at St. Joseph’s since 1990. He considers Father Illo a close friend. He said, “Father Illo is a committed Catholic, strong in doctrine, well-educated, and always well-prepared. He is also committed to his assignments, and is orthodox, which is important in a big parish like St. Joseph’s.”

Although there have been real cases of clergy abuse of minors, he said, “zero people believed there was any merit to the allegations against [Father Arakal].” 

Wilma Cabacungan, a St. Joseph parishioner since 1970, attended every day of the trial, and she noted that it concluded during Holy Week, with the verdict coming down on Good Friday. Many parishioners joined her, she said, and the courtroom was packed. The parishioners were solidly behind Father Illo and Father Arakal, she said, to the point of being ready to pay for their defense lawyers if necessary.

Father Joseph Fessio, SJ, editor of Ignatius Press and publisher of Catholic World Report, has been a long-time friend of Father Illo and has kept in regular contact with him. “Father Illo is a beloved priest,” he said, “as is evidenced by the hundreds of former St. Joseph parishioners who came to San Francisco to show their support.”

Father Fessio described the recent press coverage of the 2005 case as “tendentious and unethical.”  He specifically cited the April 25 San Francisco Chronicle article by Kristen V. Brown. At 2 pm on the day the article posted, Father Illo called Father Fessio for the number of someone representing the archdiocese who could speak to Brown. He said that the reporter was doing an article about the 2005 civil case, but that he could not respond, as the archbishop had told him not to speak with the press. Because it was Saturday, Brown was having difficulty reaching anyone representing the archdiocese to comment on the case.

Father Fessio gave Father Illo a number, and Father Illo left a message with that person. When Father Fessio checked in later with Brown, and discovered that she had not received a response from the archdiocese, he offered to comment on the story because he was familiar with the situation. Brown declined, saying she had to speak to Father Illo or an archdiocesan representative, and the article ran without Father Illo’s side of the story.

“Here’s a story that has obviously been in preparation for several days,” Father Fessio said, “and the archdiocese is given an hour and a half on a Saturday afternoon to respond.”

The sudden resurfacing of the decade-old case against Father Illo and the selective reporting on it should be seen in the larger context of the on-going attacks against Archbishop Cordileone, Father Fessio believes. Vivian Dudro, a long-time friend of Father Illo and a parishioner at Star of the Sea, agrees.

“I have every reason to believe that the digging up of this old lawsuit is the work of Sam Singer,” Dudro said, referring to the a head of a San Francisco public relations firm who has been hired by “concerned parents” to attack the archbishop due to his stands for Church teaching, particularly in the area of sexual morality. “It’s public knowledge that this big-bucks PR man has been hired by the people who want Archbishop Cordileone removed.”

Dudro said that the parishioners at Star of the Sea remain solidly behind Father Illo, who has “breathed new life into the dying urban parish.” More than 500 Mass-goers at Star of the Sea have signed a petition asking Archbishop Cordileone not to replace Father Illo, she said.

Father Fessio noted the long series of stories against Archbishop Cordileone since his arrival in San Francisco in 2012, and the recent efforts of Singer’s firm to discredit the archbishop. “This is really an attack on him,” he said. “And Father Illo is just a pawn.”

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