San Jose Catholic school releases sex abuse report, apologizes 'with heavy hearts'

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Karl Mondon/East Bay Times/TNS

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Nearly three years after a former student exposed sex abuse complaints dating back decades at San Jose’s Presentation High School for girls, its leaders released a damning outside investigation Thursday that found administrators failed to seriously pursue credible allegations against six former staffers.

Investigators the school hired in September found sufficient information “to form a good faith belief that sexual misconduct or abuse occurred by five former faculty members and one former coach” for conduct that took place from the early 1980s to 2013, the school’s president and board chair said in a statement.

“It is with heavy hearts that we are writing to you today to share the results of the investigation,” wrote Holly Elkins, Presentation’s president, and Sister Pam Chiesa, who chairs the schools board of directors. “To the survivors of abuse, we deeply and sincerely apologize. The stark truth is that our school did not live up to its commitment to protect you. We added further harm when we responded defensively when reports of past abuse began to surface in 2017.”

The report drew praise from Kathryn Leehane, who graduated from the school in 1991, disclosed abuse by her former Spanish teacher in a guest column for The Washington Post in 2017 and led other alleged victims in a campaign to hold the school’s leaders accountable.

“I am incredibly satisfied with their response,” Leehane said Thursday. “Holly Elkins’ compassionate and moral leadership is exactly what the school needed.”

The nine-month investigation by the Van Dermyden Maddux Law Corporation that concluded in June involved 86 interviews with 75 administrators, faculty, staff, board members and former students.

The report found credible sexual misconduct or abuse accusations against John Fernandez, Leehane’s now-deceased foreign language teacher; and five others. None of the accused employees have been charged with a crime.

Leehane said she had met earlier with San Jose police but was told there were no offenses that could be prosecuted because too much time had passed and the three-year statute of limitations had run out.

The misconduct reported “encompassed a wide variety of inappropriate acts, including sexual abuse, grooming, touching, kissing, groping, inappropriate fraternization, and other boundary-crossing interactions with students,” Elkins and Chiesa wrote.

The report also found that staff and former administrators, Mary Miller and Marian Stuckey, received reports of possible sexual misconduct, but took no or ineffective action.

“In several instances,” Elkins and Chiesa wrote, “there was a concerning lack of curiosity about the information that was shared, which resulted in failure to adequately investigate or act timely on information which may have led to more immediate and effective responses.”

In other cases, they added, the school appropriately addressed the conduct, and in some instances, the school did not know of the reports at the time, they said.

The investigators also documented instances of staff failures to report alleged abuse to Child Protective Services or law enforcement, as required by law, “for a variety of reasons, none of which were adequate justifications for not reporting suspected allegations of abuse,” Elkins and Chiesa wrote. “The investigation findings indicate that school policies at the time of these incidents were not explicit or well understood.”

Presentation shared the report with the San Jose Police Department, the San Jose Diocese and the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

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©2020 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)