Church settles sex abuse suit against priest
Thirty-two years old, struggling with severe mental illness, the man turned in desperation to his church, the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of San Francisco.
But soon after the man implored the Rev. Michael Rymer to be his “spiritual father” and guide him through his troubles, the priest allegedly seduced him without revealing that he had been exposed to HIV, court records show.
The priest allegedly entangled the mentally ill parishioner in a long-running, illicit relationship, offering religious salvation while inflicting sexual abuse.
“I was going to Father Michael when I was in my worst state,” the man later testified. “When I would go to him to help me, he would help me, and afterward he would take advantage of me. That was his method of continual operation over and over again.”
Over a 14-year-period, several church officials learned that the priest was HIV-positive, and they suspected he was having sex with his parishioner, according to court records. But they did not report Rymer’s misconduct.
The priest’s alleged sexual abuse of his vulnerable parishioner seemed destined to remain a secret masked by a church hierarchy steeped in tradition rich with incense and icons.
But the man’s psychiatrists urged him to complain. And with encouragement from a San Francisco-based watchdog organization that monitors sex abuse in the Eastern Orthodox Church, he filed a lawsuit accusing the priest of sexual battery and the church of negligence.
Rymer and the church have denied wrongdoing. But after San Francisco Superior Court Judge Patrick Mahoney ruled that the church might face potentially high punitive damages, the defendants settled the case at a closed court hearing on Thursday from which members of the media and the public were excluded.
The man’s lawyers, Terry Gross and Monique Alonso, declined to comment but said in court papers that despite blatant evidence of clerical misconduct, “the Church deliberately turned a blind eye.” Carla Hartley and William Wilson, attorneys for the church, also declined comment but said in a brief that the church had acted appropriately.
Many lawsuits against church
The Rymer case is the latest sex abuse settlement to roil the 1.5 million-member Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, part of the worldwide Eastern Orthodox Church, which split from the Roman Catholic Church in the 11th century.
In the past decade, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese has paid more than $10 million to settle sex abuse cases, according to the church. The archdiocese faces pending lawsuits alleging sex abuse by priests in Texas, Florida, Illinois and Arizona.
Meanwhile, more than two dozen Greek Orthodox priests around the country have been criminally convicted, sanctioned by the church or sued for sexually abusing parishioners, according to the San Francisco-based watchdog group. The organization is called Pokrov, for an Orthodox church icon that represents the protection of Mary, mother of God.
The group was founded by two mothers, Cappy Larson and Melanie Jula Sakoda, who contend that their children were sexually abused at the Holy Trinity Cathedral, an Eastern Orthodox Church on Van Ness Avenue. The church denied wrongdoing, Larson said, but paid a settlement.
Clergy abuse has afflicted many religious denominations, most prominently the Roman Catholic Church, which according to published accounts has paid more than $1 billion to victims.
But while the Catholic Church has been forced to deal with clergy sexual misconduct, “the Orthodox churches still view themselves as above the law,” Sakoda said in a statement. “Their arrogance creates a dangerous milieu for children as well as vulnerable adults.”
Sex abuse ‘not tolerated’
Stavros Papagermanos, a spokesman for the Greek Orthodox Diocese of America, in New York, said sex abuse “is not tolerated” by the church. He declined to comment on the Rymer case.
Neither Rymer nor the man with whom he had sex would comment for this article. But their story was detailed in court records that identified the alleged victim only as John Doe. The Chronicle learned his name but has withheld it under the newspaper’s policy of not identifying sex abuse victims without their permission.
As described in the documents, the case highlights a pattern found in clergy abuse cases: Religious officials disregarded mounting evidence of misconduct until the victim finally took legal measures forcing them to act.
The man who complained about Rymer was raised in a devout Greek Orthodox family and served as an altar boy at St. Nicholas Church in San Jose. He attended Foothill Junior College and San Jose City College, and, as he later said, he briefly played minor-league baseball. In 1982, he landed an administrative job at IBM and married.
But that November, he was in a bad car accident. During rehabilitation, he became addicted to painkillers and began drinking heavily. In October 1987, he was admitted to a drug detoxification program at Stanford University Hospital, and while there he had a psychotic breakdown.
He was hospitalized with schizoaffective disorder, a disease with symptoms of both schizophrenia and mood disorder. The chronic condition rendered him borderline mentally retarded, according to his lawsuit, without the ability to weigh risks.
But through it all, he remained devout. Released from the hospital, he sought solace from his church “to improve my conscious contact with God,” as he testified.
In the spring of 1989, Doe approached the Rev. Sergios Black at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in San Francisco, seeking spiritual guidance.
Black testified that he immediately recognized the man was “unaware of boundaries, what was appropriate.” Wary, he declined the man’s request to serve as his “spiritual father.” Instead, Black referred him to his friend Rymer, the parish priest at St. Basil’s Greek Orthodox Church in San Jose.
A troubled priest
Rymer had his own troubles. He was gay, despite the church’s prohibition on homosexual activity. He was a self-described sex addict, despite the church’s ban on sex out of wedlock. And by 1987, he had learned that a former sexual partner was HIV-positive.
Unlike Black, Rymer readily acceded to the man’s plea for spiritual help. In a meeting at Rymer’s church, the man unburdened himself.
He confided his substance abuse problems and his mental illness. He told the priest that he and his wife had separated as a result of his psychiatric problems and that relations with his parents also were strained.
Rymer later testified he understood that the man was “mentally ill, that he had had a psychotic break, that he was oftentimes very emotionally unstable.”
A few days later, Rymer invited the man to supper at the home he shared with his mother in San Jose. After she had retired for the night, Rymer and the man had sex on the living room couch, the priest testified.
Rymer would later claim the man initiated sex and became a willing partner. The man would claim Rymer took advantage of his priest’s authority.
Almost immediately, the priest felt he was falling in love. “It was very joyful on one hand and somewhat frightening on the other hand,” he testified.
He said he struggled with the conflict between being “a practicing homosexual and being part of a church that basically was condemning of who and what I was engaging in.”
For his part, the man believed Rymer was trying to convince him he was gay.
“He tried to convince me that homosexuality was acceptable,” the man testified. “He told me that a couple of the disciples of Christ were also homosexual.”
As their sexual involvement continued, the man and his wife divorced. Meanwhile, he served as an acolyte, helping Rymer celebrate Mass.
Wanting to end relationship
But then the man told Rymer he wanted to end their sexual relationship.
The priest tried to dissuade him. On a retreat at a monastery at Point Reyes, Rymer testified, he screamed at the man and threw furniture “because of his rejection of me.”
Later, while the man was driving them home across the Golden Gate Bridge, the priest had what he later called a panic attack and “wanted to throw myself off the bridge.”
Within days, Rymer checked into Stanford Medical Center’s psychiatric unit and while there was diagnosed as HIV-positive.
Only then did Rymer tell the man that he had been at risk of exposure to HIV. Although the men usually engaged in safe sex, the priest later testified, on at least one occasion they did not. The man seemed unconcerned and the priest saw the man’s continuing sexual participation with him as what he later described in testimony as a “godsend.”
The man continued to have problems with substance abuse and “hypersexual” behavior, according to court records.
In 1993, he moved to Vermont for residential psychiatric treatment, but his relationship with the priest would continue. When he returned to California seven years later, they resumed having sex. The man never contracted HIV.
Evidence of misconduct
During their on-again, off-again relationship, church officials repeatedly encountered evidence of Rymer’s misconduct. The priest testified that he had told a host of them that he was homosexual or that he had HIV and then developed AIDS.
In 1989, for example, Rymer said he confided to the Rev. Black about his sexual relationship with the man. “He warned me to be careful,” Rymer testified. “Just to be cautious in having a relationship with someone.”
In an interview, Black denied that. He told The Chronicle he did not learn that Rymer was gay or had AIDS until questioned during the lawsuit.
Around 1999, the Rev. Michael Pappas learned Rymer had AIDS and was living with the man in Stockton. “The chemistry between the two brought about a dramatic change in Fr. Rymer’s personality,” Pappas would write in a report years later. “This ongoing strange behavior reached the level of scandal within our community.”
Pappas testified that he reported the matter to higher authorities. Pappas, who later served as a priest at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in San Francisco, himself stepped down after admitting in a letter to church members that he had “strayed from faithfulness” in his marriage. Now executive director of the San Francisco Interfaith Council, Pappas declined to comment.
Even Metropolitan Gerasimos, who has since become the church’s top West Coast official, testified that in the late 1990s he had heard indirectly that Rymer had HIV and concluded that Rymer had been infected through homosexual activity.
But Gerasimos did not share his suspicions with other church officials, testifying that Rymer “was not a subject of my immediate interest.”
Gerasimos did not return phone calls from The Chronicle.
Rymer’s sexual relationship with a mentally ill parishioner remained an open secret.
Formal complaint to church
Then, in December 2003, the man made a formal complaint to the church claiming that the priest had raped him.
Church officials suspended Rymer, according to court records, but neither revoked his title of priest nor ordered him to cease contact with the man.
Some time later, Rymer invited the man to his house for dinner, had sex with him and persuaded him to retract his complaint, according to the man’s testimony.
But in April 2005, the man reinstated his complaint. Finally, at a hearing of the church’s committee on clergy discipline, Rymer admitted having sex with the man.
According to a confidential church report, “Fr. Michael stated that he had ‘crossed a line’ and ‘made a mistake,’ calling his actions ‘stupid.’ ”
The man then sued. Both the church and Rymer admitted the priest had sex with the man, but contended they had no legal liability because it was consensual.
But Judge Mahoney found there was sufficient evidence for the case to go to trial. The judge also ruled the man could sue for punitive damages based on evidence that church officials “had knowledge of critical facts and did not act upon those facts.”
The church then agreed to a confidential settlement. Now 50 years old, the man remains under psychiatric care. He has held a series of menial jobs for short periods and sometimes has been homeless, sleeping on the street.
Meanwhile, Rymer lives at a church monastery near Redding. According to church officials, he was defrocked in 2006.
But Rymer, who is now a monk, testified last year that he still bears the honorific title of “a virtuous father.”
Timeline: How parishioner’s sex abuse suit against Greek Orthodox Metropolis unfolded.A15
How mentally ill man’s suit unfolded
The Greek Orthodox Diocese and the Rev. Michael Rymer deny a mentally ill parishioner’s claims that Rymer sexually abused him during a long-running relationship that continued while church officials failed to take appropriate action. But court records describe a series of events leading to the church’s and Rymer’s agreement to confidentially settle the parishioner’s allegations of sex abuse:
1987: After a car wreck, the man becomes addicted to painkillers and alcohol, has a psychotic breakdown, and is diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.
1989: The man meets Rymer and asks for spiritual help. Days later, Rymer invites him home to dinner and has sex with him, beginning a tempestuous relationship. The priest does not mention he may be HIV-positive.
1989: Later that year, Rymer is diagnosed as being HIV-positive and only then does he tell the man he is at risk of infection.
1989: Rymer tells the Rev. Sergios Black that he is gay and has HIV, according to Rymer’s testimony. Black later denies this.
1999: The Rev. Michael Pappas learns Rymer has AIDS and is living with the man in Stockton. Although Pappas believes Rymer and the man are having sex in violation of church rules, he does not pursue the matter, he testifies, because “I didn’t think it was my business.”
Late 1990s: Metropolitan Gerasimos, now the church’s top West Coast official, hears that Rymer has HIV and concludes he is a homosexual. Gerasimos does not tell other church authorities his suspicions, testifying Rymer “was not a subject of my immediate interest.”
2000: Rymer tells the Rev. Meletios Webber he is having sex with the man. Rymer later testifies that Webber “basically discouraged me from doing it.” Webber did not return a phone call seeking comment.
2003: The man makes a formal complaint to Pappas, who reports it to church superiors. They suspend Rymer, but do not revoke his title of priest or order no contact with the man.
2004: Rymer has sex with the man and persuades him to retract his complaint, according to the man’s testimony.
2005: The man reinstates his complaint, and the church’s committee on clergy discipline holds a hearing where Rymer admits having had sex with him.
May 2006: The man sues Rymer and the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of San Francisco for sex abuse and negligence. Rymer and the church deny his charges.
December 2006: The church defrocks Rymer and returns him to lay status.
Sept. 18, 2008: San Francisco Superior Court Commissioner Frank Drago approves a confidential settlement of the man’s lawsuit at a closed hearing.
Resources on abuse in Greek church
Policy: The Greek Orthodox Church of America has adopted a policy that calls for thoroughly investigating complaints of sex abuse by clergy. The policy recognizes that such abuse can have “devastating consequences, not only for the individuals involved, but for their communities as well.” The church has established a telephone hot line for complaints at (877) 554-3382. Its policy can be viewed online at links.sfgate.com/ZEVG.
Watchdog: Pokrov is an organization created by two Bay Area mothers concerned about sex abuse in the Orthodox Church. Founders Cappy Larson and Melanie Jula Sakoda have created a Web site that tracks sex abuse cases and offers information and resources to victims of clergy sex abuse at www.pokrov.org.