Old court cases further raise San Francisco parents' dissatisfaction with pastor

Fr. Joseph Illo (Newscom/ZUMAPRESS/Bart Ah You)

Canonical and court documents from 2003 and 2005 that cast a negative light on the ministry of Fr. Joseph Illo during his time in the Stockton, Calif., diocese -- including a court ruling that he inflicted "intentional emotional distress" on an 11-year-old girl -- have further enraged parents at Star of the Sea School who have sought the priest's removal as Star of Sea Parish administrator.

A San Francisco Examiner story posted Thursday reports that a civil case settled in San Joaquin County Superior Court in 2005 ruled that Illo emotionally abused the child when he was pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Modesto and that "the girl was ultimately awarded $20,000 in damages."

According to court documents provided to NCR, the event took place Sept. 11, 2001. The girl reportedly went to Illo to tell him of alleged sexual misconduct against her and her sister in their home about two months earlier by associate pastor Fr. Francis Arakal.

According to a "settlement conference statement" filed in February 2005 by attorneys of the girls' guardian ad litem and mother, Kathleen Machado: "Rather than protect and minister to the 11-year-old ... Fr. Illo breached the child's confidences by forcing the child to confront the offending priest. The pastor and offending priest then called the child a 'liar,' yelled at her and defamed her mother by insinuating to the 11-year-old that her mother was 'fabricating' the allegations ... because 'all [Machado] wanted to do was have sex' " with Illo.

The statement alleges a strong relationship between Machado and Illo, saying, "Fr. Illo wrote Kathleen reciprocating letters as well, and it is crystal clear that he harbored some strong feelings for Kathleen. The mutual strong attachment was noticeable to others."

A Jan. 6, 2003, canonical investigation into "Allegations of Harassment and Defamation of Character Raised by Ms. Kathleen Machado against Reverend Joseph Illo" stated: "Fr. Illo's handing of the incident with the child, and ... other incidents, indicate a need for improvement of his pastoral management skills."

"There is sufficient testimony to indicate that Fr. Illo on occasion can exhibit two opposite facets of a personality -- on the one hand kind and helpful and sensitive and on the other hand dictatorial, manipulative and insensitive."

"Perhaps counseling for Fr. Illo in gender boundaries and pastoral care of women would be appropriate," the investigation report said in its "conclusions and recommendations."

The report, submitted to Stockton Bishop Stephen Blaire, also said: "The Petitioner [Machado] needs to be aware of her own vulnerability as a woman suffering the trauma of divorce. She needs to be aware of how this vulnerability drives her into continued and frustrating attempts at establishing relationships."

Via email, Illo declined comment. "I'm sorry but Archbishop [Salvatore] Cordileone has asked me not to respond to questions from the media. I refer you to our legal counsel, Larry Januzzi," he wrote.

Star of the Sea School parent Christy Brooks told NCR that she and other parents want answers about the vetting process used before Illo was assigned to the parish not only as administrator but as initiator of transforming the parish into what is known as an oratory.

"Did Archbishop Cordileone know about this?" she asked. "If he did, why weren't we told? If he didn't, he should have."

School parent and vice chair of the archdiocesan Board of Education Scott Bialous agreed. "We have seen Fr. Illo in repeated patterns of inability to deal well with women and children, especially children. We have questions about whether he followed through on the recommendations to undergo counseling. At this point, we have a hard time trusting him."

Requests for comment from the archdiocese had not been acknowledged by late Thursday morning, but the Examiner story quoted archdiocesan spokesperson Larry Kamer as saying parents are encouraged to express any concerns with the parish or archdiocese.

"Any matter concerning even the allegation of abuse is something the church takes quite seriously," Kamer told the Examiner. "In this particular case, the police and the jury both found that there was never any abuse and the matter was resolved on other issues."

Parents did express concerns to Auxiliary Bishop William Justice and vicar for clergy Fr. Raymund Reyes at a March 25 meeting attended by about 200 people at the school auditorium.

Sixteen parents delivered brief statements describing the changes instituted by Illo and the impact on their children. Most of the speakers concluded, "We respectfully ask that Fr. Illo and Fr. Driscoll be removed from Star of the Sea." Fr. Patrick Driscoll is associate pastor.

Justice told the audience he would convey the parents' concerns to Cordileone. Bialous told NCR that no response has yet been provided to the parental group.

Vivian Dudro, who told the Examiner she has known Illo for 25 years, defended the priest. "He's a very dynamic and vigorous guy. If there's anybody who can pump new life into this church, it's Father Illo," she told the newspaper.

Dudro told the Examiner that the civil case against Illo is "an unfortunate situation" in which there was no misbehavior by Illo.

"I'm a mother, and I don't doubt that the child would have felt at the very least uncomfortable and intimidated in a situation like that," Dudro said. "However, I believe from the bottom of my being that Father Illo would have never intended harm of a child, ever."

According to the Examiner, "hundreds of parishioners are voicing support for Illo, who they say has revived the Star of the Sea Parish since arriving in August. In fact, within the past month a petition with more than 500 signatures was delivered to Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone urging that Illo be kept in the parish."

In a yes-or-no checklist of accusations against Illo and Arakal accompanying its "Judgment on Special Verdict in Open Court" filed April 4, the court clears Arakal of "intent to harm or offend" the 11-year-old and of acting "with the intent to cause harmful or offensive contact with an intimate part" of her.

Arakal was also ruled not to have caused "intentional infliction of emotional distress" to either of the sisters.

Illo, however, was confirmed to have purposefully emotionally abused the 11-year-old and acted "with reckless disregard of the probability" of causing emotional harm.

According to a May 2014 story in Catholic San Francisco, Illo and Driscoll were to be the initial residents of what is called a fraternity, "the first step toward the canonical establishment of an Oratory of St. Philip Neri" at Star of the Sea.

An oratory is a " 'Clerical Society of Apostolic Life of Pontifical Right,' first begun by St. Philip in Rome in 1575," Catholic San Francisco reported. "Its members are secular priests and brothers who live in community without formal vows and carry out pastoral ministry, usually in an urban parish."

Some archdiocesan priests have expressed concerns about the oratory initiative, calling it divisive.

Meanwhile, supporters of Illo and Driscoll are promoting what they call a "Mass Mob," inviting like-minded Catholics to attend a vigil Mass at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at Star of the Sea, after which "spiritual bouquets" will be presented to the two priests. They have also launched a Facebook page encouraging Illo and Driscoll.

[Dan Morris Young is NCR West Coast correspondent. His email address is dmyoung@ncronline.org.]




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