Father Crews resigns in wake of 1970s abuse claim
Hanna Boys leader stepped down immediately after allegations surfaced
FLANKED BY COMPOSITE PORTRAITS of Hanna boys, Kris Van Giesen, chief development and community relations officer at Hanna Boys Center, ponders a future without the leadership of Father John Crews.
Father John Crews, the longtime executive director of Hanna Boys Center, resigned late last week following the allegation of a single act of sexual misconduct dating back to the early 1970s.
According to Bishop Robert F. Vasa, of the Diocese of Santa Rosa, the allegation “came to our attention on Tuesday (Feb. 12) and was immediately reported to the police.”
Vasa, who said he had been out of town when the allegations surfaced, added the diocese then learned the matter had already been reported to the police. “A mandatory reporter,” he said, “reported it to police, and then to us.”
But according to Sebastopol Police Chief Jeffrey Weaver, his office received a telephone report from a private citizen, not a mandatory reporter such as a priest or therapist, on Friday, Feb. 1 stating that someone had been victimized by a priest at a church in Sebastopol more than 40 years ago.
“We were told the victim was not accessible,” said Weaver. Asked if that meant the victim was dead, Weaver said he did not know.
But Dierdre Frontczak, communications director for the Diocese of Santa Rosa, confirmed that the allegation of sexual abuse was attributed to a victim now deceased. Frontczak said Wednesday she did not know where the alleged incident took place and was not at liberty to reveal the gender of the alleged victim.
Bishop Vasa confirmed Thursday, however, that the alleged victim was a male and a minor at the time the abuse was alleged to have taken place.
Chief Weaver said Thursday that his office did not conduct an investigation per se but confirmed with the diocese that the named suspect in the allegation “was still in a position to potentially have contact with future victims.”
He said a patrol officer had contacted a detective with the sexual assault unit of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office to relate the details of the case, but that the Sebastopol Police Department was not moving forward with the case proactively. “The victim and only potential witness is dead,” he said, “and it allegedly happened 41 or 42 years ago, well beyond the statute of limitations.”
Frontczak added that the allegation did not indicate a pattern of sexual misconduct. “Everyone involved (in the allegation) believes this was an isolated incident,” she said.
On Thursday, a spokesperson for the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office said it had received no report on the case.
Vasa said the diocese dispatched a victim’s assistance coordinator to contact the family of the deceased alleged victim. Asked why the allegation was made so long after the act of sexual misconduct was alleged to have occurred, Vasa said the explanation was “confidential.”
But Frontczak added that she understood the alleged victim “had had no intention of raising” the abuse allegation with authorities, and that the revelation came from someone connected to a family member.
Asked if the evidence against Crews justified his resignation, Vasa commented, “Unfortunately, the (evidence) of the allegation bears little weight. The public climate is such that priests are presumed guilty.”
Vasa added, “I treated the allegation as credible and acted accordingly. I can presume neither guilt nor innocence. …Father Crews is 67-years-old, and he would have retired in a short time.”
Crews had been executive director of Hanna since July 1984 and would have celebrated his 29th anniversary this summer. He was widely praised and admired for his leadership in the lives of thousands of troubled youth who found in the center’s Catholic embrace, a safe, nurturing environment and a rigorous educational experience.
Hanna was established in 1943 as a haven for troubled boys between the ages of 13 and 18. It is a private, nonprofit agency with no financial support from the Catholic Church or from governments, although it was founded by two priests under the auspices of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Its residential campus draws students from the greater Bay Area and beyond, and every candidate was personally interviewed by Crews, who became a surrogate father to hundreds.
Prior to assuming leadership at Hanna, Crews was a parish priest at St. Sebastian Church in Sebastopol as well as at St. Joseph Church in Cotati.
He also served as a chaplain in the United States Naval Reserves for 25 years, holding the rank of captain. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Crews was called to active duty and served with the Navy for several months in Hawaii.
His resignation was announced following a Feb. 6 meeting with Msgr. Daniel Whelton, vicar general of the Santa Rosa Diocese, who shared the allegation with Crews. Details of that meeting were not made available, but Hanna officials stated that Crews came to them promptly the next day and announced his intention to resign.
The announcement was made to staff and students on Wednesday.
Reaction to the news from the Hanna board of directors came quickly. “We are shocked and saddened and take any allegation of this nature very seriously,” said Jack Bertges, chair of the Hanna board. “We want our supporters and community to know that this alleged incident did not occur during John Crews’ tenure at the Hanna Boys Center and that we have no reason to believe that there was any inappropriate conduct between Father Crews and the students of Hanna Boys Center.”
Kris Van Giesen, chief development and community relations officer at Hanna, concurred, “We have no reason to believe that anything inappropriate every happened at Hanna. We have very rigorous procedures to guarantee the safety of the boys, with total transparency.”
Van Giesen said that Crews contacted senior staff at the center as soon as the diocese reported the allegation to him. “We did not ask, and he did not share” any of the details of the allegation, Van Giesen said. “Being the leader he is, he understood immediately what was best for the center and submitted his resignation on the spot.”
Mary Jo Potter of Walnut Creek, past chair of the Hanna board of directors, said during a Thursday visit to the Hanna campus, “One of the hardest things for me is dealing with this both as a board member and as a human being. As a board member, I have to use the left side of my brain and look ahead to the future. And then, as a person, you have to try to replace someone you admire. And for the moment, you need to grieve. But you can’t fill his shoes. It would be a mistake to ever try to replace him personally.”
Asked how the center would deal with the indelible presence of a man whose face and name is literally visible all over the campus, and who has been the public face of the institution for so long, Potter said she wasn’t sure.
“We don’t yet know how we will deal with that. We need to give it some time. I guess we’re all a little hopeful to stay in touch (with Crews) when and if its appropriate.”
Noma Martini, a Hanna graduate and lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, is one of Hanna’s most high-profile success stories. Reached in Florida by phone Thursday, where he is a professor of military science at the University of Florida and an ROTC instructor, Martini said, “The man they discussed in the headlines, I don’t know who that man is. I know the man I called father. He never once violated my trust. That’s the person I’ve known for the past 30 years. I still consider him my family. My heart goes out to him.”
Frontczak, who has weathered her share of sex abuse storms in the Santa Rosa Diocese, notably including the case of fugitive priest and alleged child abuser Father Xavier Ochoa, said the culture of reporting alleged abuse “has changed pretty dramatically” since the Ochoa case.
Ochoa, an assistant pastor at St. Francis Solano Church in Sonoma, was widely suspected of child sex abuse, but when a superior priest reported his concerns to then-Bishop Daniel Walsh, the bishop waited three days before reporting the allegation to law enforcement authorities. During that time, Ochoa fled to his native Mexico. He was subsequently charged with multiple counts of felony child sex abuse. He died in 2009 without ever being arrested.
Today, said Frontczak, “I’d be stunned if there is any adult working anywhere near the diocese who doesn’t know abuse incidents have to be reported” to law enforcement.
Van Giesen said when news of Crews’ resignation was shared with Hanna students, “It was very difficult, they’re definitely dealing with it. They respected him, and do respect him, immensely.”
Van Giesen said trained professional counselors were onsite Wednesday, “interacting with the boys all day.”
Hanna has some 110 boys in residence at the Arnold Drive campus, along with close to 100 staff, Van Giesen said, adding that from a personal perspective, “It’s been a privilege to work with Father Crews over the last eight years. It’s clear that he’s had an amazing impact on thousands of boys who will be better men as a result of their experience at Hanna.”
He said the search for a successor has already begun and a succession plan has long been in place.
The existing leadership team, he added, has an average of 25-years experience at the center and are fully capable of running the facility until a new executive director is named. That team includes Chief Financial Officer Monica Clark, high school Principal Dennis Crandall, Clinical Director Dr. Tim Norman, Chief Operating Officer Scott Singer and Van Giesen.