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Hanna Boys Center head John Crews resigns after sexual misconduct allegation

Father John Crews has been the executive director of the Hanna Boys Center in Sonoma since 1983.

PD FILE, 2012
Published: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 at 8:40 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 14, 2013 at 7:05 a.m.

The Rev. John Crews has resigned as executive director of the Hanna Boys Center following an allegation of sexual misconduct with a boy in the 1970s, prior to his arrival at the Sonoma Valley facility for troubled youth.

Longtime friends said they were stunned by the Catholic priest's resignation, which stemmed from a complaint brought by relatives of the alleged victim, who is deceased. Crews' departure was announced Wednesday to staff and students.

The sprawling campus on Arnold Drive has been home to more than 3,400 boys since it opened in 1949. It has become part of the fabric of Sonoma Valley, a community institution known for its good works and wide network of financial supporters. It currently operates on a $10.6 million annual budget and is in the midst of an expansion resulting from an ongoing $15 million fund drive.

"It is a difficult day for Hanna Boys Center," said Kris Van Giesen, chief development and community relations officer for the organization.

Alumni from the center, which enrolls students from Sonoma County and around the Bay Area, have become business owners, military commanders, teachers and rap artists, he said.

Santa Rosa Bishop Robert Vasa said the diocese, which has made missteps in handling child sex abuse complaints in the past and paid millions of dollars to victims, followed church and legal requirements in Crews' case.

The priest, ordained in the local diocese in 1971, handled the situation "very graciously," Vasa said.

Crews, who had run the Sonoma Valley center since 1984, was accused of an "inappropriate relationship with a young man" about 40 years ago, Vasa said.

Crews, 67, agreed to resign in a meeting last week with the Rev. Msgr. Daniel Whelton, the Santa Rosa Catholic Diocese's second-highest-ranking official.

Crews will remain a priest in the diocese until he retires, but "will not serve in any other public ministry," the bishop said.

Vasa, who was out of town last week as the situation developed, said that relatives of the alleged victim reported the allegation early in the week and diocesan officials took immediate action, reporting the matter to Sebastopol police.

Prior to his work at the Hanna center, Crews served as a parish priest at St. Sebastian Church in Sebastopol and St. Joseph Church in Cotati, and also served briefly as an administrator at Cardinal Newman High School in Santa Rosa.

He has been a chaplain in the Naval Reserves for 25 years and holds the rank of captain.

Vasa declined to elaborate on the nature of the allegation or to say where Crews was working when the alleged misconduct took place.

"We have no reason to believe there are any other individuals involved," the bishop said.

Vasa is spiritual leader of the 165,000-member diocese, which includes 42 parishes from Petaluma to the Oregon border.

Sebastopol Police Chief Jeff Weaver confirmed Wednesday that police received a report by phone. Sgt. Mike Nielsen said later that no official crime report had been filed nor any specific investigation opened.

Vasa said that no other allegations against Crews were contained in diocese records. Asked if the diocese had contacted parishes regarding Crews, the bishop said that news reports would accomplish the same purpose.

"If an allegation is received, I treat it as credible until the contrary is proved," Vasa said.

The bishop said he "encouraged" Whelton to meet with Crews.

Vasa declined to relate the details of the meeting, calling it a confidential discussion between "two brother priests."

Crews' resignation was a "mutual meeting of the minds," Vasa said, adding that Crews was left to inform officials at Hanna Boys Center.

"Does it (the resignation) imply guilt? I don't know," Vasa said, suggesting that it could have been Crews' desire "not to have this drawn out."

Van Giesen said he was one of five center officials who met Feb. 7 with Crews, who informed them of the allegation against him and announced his resignation.

Crews did not elaborate on the allegation, nor did he admit to any misconduct, Van Giesen said.

Crews' resignation "was the right thing to do," Van Giesen said. "It was no surprise that he put the center above himself."

Crews' resignation was announced Wednesday, six days after it was submitted, because center officials needed time to assure themselves of the facts and prepare to share the information "with our staff, the boys and the community," Van Giesen

"We are shocked and saddened and take any allegation of this nature very seriously," said Jack Bertges, chairman of the Hanna center's board of trustees.

"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," Bertges said in a written statement.

Crews could not be reached for comment Wednesday. He has moved out of his residence at the center, Van Giesen said.

Longtime friends of Crews questioned whether the alleged misconduct really happened.

"Everyone felt really good about him as the priest out here," said Martin Webb, retired principal of Analy High School in Sebastopol. Crews served at St. Sebastian's in the 1970s, Webb said.

Webb, who is not Catholic, said he had consulted with Crews over how to handle matters with his own son. "I always felt he gave me good advice," Webb said.

Tony Lombardi, who works for a Sebastopol winery, said he served as an altar boy with Crews at St. Sebastian's and St. Joseph's in the mid-1970s. He called Crews "one of the influential figures in my life" and finds the allegations of sexual misconduct hard to believe.

The Hanna center is losing "a person who's brought a lot of light to the organization," Lombardi said.

Graham Rutherford, principal at Cardinal Newman, said he had known Crews since he was in high school and Crews was associate pastor at St. Joseph's.

"It's stunning," said Rutherford, who heard about the matter through news reports online. "Who knows what to say? You hope that things are cleared up," he said.

Rutherford said no announcement was made to Newman staff or students because Crews' tenure at the school was brief and years ago, in the early 1980s.

Crews was the third executive director of the Hanna center, which was founded in 1945 and opened the Sonoma Valley facility on a 170-acre foothill campus on Arnold Drive in 1949.

The center serves as a residence and school for at-risk boys, ages 13 to 18, who are referred by juvenile court authorities, Catholic parishes, school counselors and Hanna alumni.

The center currently has about 110 students.

Students come primarily from the Bay Area, and last year about 30 percent of them were from Sonoma County.

The center is an independent nonprofit organization that is not owned or operated by the Santa Rosa diocese. Vasa serves on the center's board of directors.

It is about three miles northwest of Sonoma, off Arnold Drive, a world away from busy city life, where many of the boys come from. The boys live in small homes dotting the property, each with a supervisor and live-in caregivers. Meals are served in a campus dining room and in the middle of campus is the Our Lady of Fatima chapel. The center has its own high school.

The property was quiet Wednesday afternoon, with few students out and a handful of parents visiting their children.

One parent declined to comment on Crews' resignation.

Staff members ordered journalists to speak only with Van Giesen, who said staff and students had been advised to refer any inquiries to him.

Inside the administrative center is a "legacy room" where dozens of letters from prospective students line a display alongside photos of Hanna boys playing sports and participating in other school activities.

Each letter is addressed to Crews and is a prerequisite of admission to the center.

Van Giesen said school administrators met with staff and broke the news of Crews' resignation. Then they told the students, who had the chance to ask questions, he said.

"Mostly they were just trying to comprehend it," Van Giesen said.

He said students have always been encouraged to communicate with teachers or other staff members if they have problems or feel uncomfortable about an interaction with an adult.

The Santa Rosa diocese has a long history of priests involved in sexual abuse allegations. Seventeen of its priests have been accused of sexual misconduct dating back to the 1970s, and victims have been paid about $25 million in legal settlements.

In 2006, former Bishop Daniel Walsh failed to follow the requirement under California state law to immediately report alleged sexual misconduct by former Sonoma priest Francisco Xavier Ochoa.

Ochoa, who died in 2009, fled to Mexico before being charged with sexually abusing several children from different Sonoma County families.

After an investigation by the District Attorney's Office, Walsh accepted diversion to a counseling program in lieu of facing misdemeanor charges for the delay.

Vasa said the diocese complied with the law and church policy in Crews' case.

"It saddens me to learn that a child had been harmed so long ago," the bishop said, expressing sympathy to the family. "I take the care and protection of the children very seriously."

Staff Writers Lori Carter and Randi Rossmann contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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