O.C. priest ousted over past sexual misconduct
Founding pastor had admitted to relationship with teen boy 19 years ago; some parishioners would rather forgive.

March 4, 2002

The Orange County Register

Rancho Santa Margarita The Catholic Diocese of Orange, citing a new "no tolerance" policy on sexual misconduct, has forced the resignation of a priest who admitted to having an ongoing relationship with a teen-age boy 19 years ago.

The Rev. Michael Pecharich, 56, the founding pastor of the 4,000-family San Francisco Solano Church in Rancho Santa Margarita, has resigned and will be leaving public ministry at the request of Bishop Tod Brown.

On Sunday, the slight, bespectacled priest faced the parishioners he had spiritually guided for nearly 15 years and offered an apology.

"The news is not good. It is not good at all," Pecharich said. He asked them to read a letter to be distributed later that said in part: "Nineteen years ago I transgressed the personal boundaries of an adolescent. ... I am truly sorry for the harm caused."

As he left the sanctuary, he was given a standing ovation. One man called out, "God bless you, father."

Since January, the diocese has been combing its records for old incidents. The new policy is retroactive to any case of proven or admitted misconduct with a minor.

Diocese officials first became aware of Pecharich's misconduct in 1996, they said. They were alerted by the victim, now an adult, who came forward to "be assured no one else was harmed," the bishop said.

The man did not file a lawsuit or seek any monetary settlement, Brown said. He asked for an apology, and the priest asked for his forgiveness.

"There have been no new accusations or further instances of misconduct by Pecharich," Brown said. He added that Pecharich years before had sought extended psychological counseling on his own, and has had "periodic checkups" since then.

Under the old guidelines, errant priests were allowed to remain in public ministry if they received treatment and were not deemed a serious risk.

But in recent months dioceses across the country, in step with Vatican directives and the U.S. Conference of Bishops, have stepped up their policing. The issue has recently intensified because of allegations in the Boston diocese, where 80 priests are suspected of molesting children.

Nationally, the Catholic Church has been accused by critics of shuffling priests from diocese to diocese, where they sometimes molested again.

The Orange Diocese has instituted a Web site and toll-free number to report molestation incidents, and has created a booklet on how to report them. Diocese officials are meeting with priests to reiterate the new policy. Priests are now required to sign agreements not to molest.

Speaking of Pecharich, Brown said, "This is very painful, but we have made a promise to the community that we will enforce our policies."

Pecharich did not say what his plans are. Church officials said he would be aided financially as needed, and that he is vested in the diocesan pension plan.

Brown has technically withdrawn the priest's so-called faculties, which means he can't carry out a public ministry or conduct the sacramental duties, including saying Mass, marrying and baptizing. Only the Vatican can conduct a laicization, that is, returning a priest to the state of laity.

The Rev. Craig Butters, chaplain at Santa Margarita Catholic High School, will fill in at the parish until a new pastor is named.

Pecharich served the church for 29 years. He was an associate pastor at St. Edwards Church in Dana Point and San Antonio de Padua in Anaheim Hills. He was vicar of clergy until he was appointed to establish the parish in the late '80s.

The starkly modern sanctuary he stood in on Sunday was built 13 years ago, partly because of his vision of combining three small area parishes into one large church.

Just outside, Sister Barbara Reder succumbed to tears. "It's heartbreaking. We will stand behind him in prayer."

Many more were crying, hugging and holding hands on the sun-drenched patio of the church as they read the letter. This was a man, they said, who had dinner in their homes, knows most of their names, has a wonderful sense of humor and taught them how to know God better.

"The facts are what they are, but it hurts," said Ralph Lizmeier of Coto de Caza. "So many miracles have happened here under his guidance."

What bothered many of the parishioners, they said, was that the diocese's new zero- tolerance policy does not seem to take into consideration that people can change. They agreed that, by his own admission, this was a man who had sinned. They were not defending the actions, they said.

"Our faith is one of forgiveness," said Brian Clifton of Trabuco Canyon. "We are all human. He has gone on to lead an exemplary life. I would trust my 9-year-old son with him."