Feb 26, 2019
After executing a search warrant on Priest’s living room quarters at St. Michael Catholic Church, police find Meth Pipe, Sex Toys among other disturbing items. Watch NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit speak to Sandra Ribera Speed.
Meth Pipe, Sex Toys Found in Room of Priest Accused of Raping Seminarian at Livermore Church
The priest’s accuser is now suing the Diocese of Oakland
Published Feb 26, 2019 at 7:05 PM | Updated at 10:45 AM PDT on Mar 22, 2019
A glass meth pipe and thong underwear found in a locked closet, a blindfold found inside a nightstand drawer, and sex toys found behind a mirror on the floor. Those are just a few of the items Livermore police detectives removed from the living quarters of Father Van Dinh inside the rectory of St. Michael Catholic Church as they investigated the priest for rape in 2017. Senior Investigative Reporter Vicky Nguyen reports on a story that first aired Tuesday, February 26.
NBC BAY AREA
(Published Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019)
A glass meth pipe and thong underwear found in a locked closet, a blindfold found inside a nightstand drawer, and sex toys found behind a mirror on the floor. Those are just a few of the items Livermore police detectives removed from the living quarters of Father Van Dinh inside the rectory of St. Michael Catholic Church as they investigated the priest for rape in 2017, according to a police report viewed recently by NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit.
Days before detectives served that search warrant at the church, Dinh’s accuser said the priest blindfolded and raped him inside the priest’s bedroom. The former seminarian’s accusations, equal parts horrific and bizarre, were detailed in the police report.
On Monday, Dinh’s accuser filed a lawsuit against the Diocese of Oakland and Bishop Michael C. Barber.
The plaintiff, a 26-year-old immigrant from Mexico, listed as “John Doe” in the lawsuit, said he’s wanted to be a priest since he was a child praying the rosary every day with his family. He spoke to NBC Bay Area and asked to have his identity concealed for fear of retaliation.
“I did not want to be in this legal matter,” Doe said. “I wanted justice done. I wanted them to acknowledge that there was a crime.”
Dinh’s case briefly made headlines in November 2017, when the Diocese announced it was placing Dinh on administrative leave after an allegation of clergy misconduct. However, the Diocese never disclosed the specific allegations against Dinh. The Livermore Police Department and the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office also declined to provide those details to NBC Bay Area, only saying that no criminal charges were ever brought against Dinh.
But last week, NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit viewed records from the 2017 Livermore police investigation, which reveal the startling details leading to Dinh’s suspension and ultimate resignation as pastor of St. Michael Catholic Church.
New Details Emerge
Doe said his troubles in the church began when he was dismissed from the Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon, run by the Diocese of Oakland, after a night out with seven other seminarians at a Portland gay bar. Doe says he was accused by another seminarian of inappropriately touching him at the bar, an allegation he denies. Doe says he was dismissed from the seminary in 2016, and given the option to reapply in two years if he continued his studies.
Doe came back to the Bay Area, where he began working in two local parishes, one as a volunteer, and another as paid employee. However, Doe said he was soon dismissed from those jobs once Bishop Barber learned of his employment there.
“Even after they had asked me to continue to volunteer and help out in my community and parishes, I was pushed away by the very thing I wanted to be, by the leader of Diocese,” Doe said.
Doe told NBC Bay Area that Dinh, who he considered a trusted spiritual adviser at the time, offered to set him up with a job as a receptionist at a friend’s office. But before going to meet with Dinh’s friend, the priest invited him for breakfast at the rectory of St. Michael, Doe said.
Doe says he was lured there under false pretenses.
“He sat me down in a chair and gave me a gift bag,” Doe said. “In the gift bag he had oils, and chocolate, and underwear. He grabbed me and he said, ‘I want to give you a massage.’ I was frozen. I was in shock.”
Doe says Dinh pushed him down on a mattress, took his clothes off, and began massaging his body with baby oil against his will.
“Dinh was breathing fast and started to say, ‘Woody, Woody, what’s your fantasy?’” the civil complaint stated. “In the past, Dinh had told Plaintiff he resembled the character “Woody” from the movie Toy Story.”
In vivid detail, Doe recounted being blindfolded, having his hands tied in front of him, and raped.
“I was frozen, I couldn’t move,” Doe said.
After the ordeal was over, Doe says Dinh told him to rest in bed while he made breakfast. That’s when Doe said he ran from the rectory.
“Immediately after escaping Dinh’s residence, Plaintiff drove to the residence of another priest and told him that Dinh had sexually abused him against his will,” the civil complaint stated. “The priest immediately reported the incident to Gloria Espinoza, a representative for the Diocese.”
According to the Livermore police report, four days would pass before the Diocese reported the alleged sexual assault to authorities. According to the report, by the time detectives attempted a pretext phone call between Doe and Dinh on November 21, the Diocese had already informed Dinh of the allegations.
“On 11/21/17, Doe agreed to do a pretext phone call with Father Van Dinh as I monitored the phone call,” a Livermore police detective wrote in the report.
“Father Van Dinh told him that the Diocese had already called him and told him what [redacted] had reported to the Diocese. Father Van Dinh told Doe that he needed to call the Diocese and tell them that “I didn’t attack you.” Father Van Dinh then told Doe that he was trying to be a good friend to him, and that Doe had asked for the massage. Father Van Dinh told Doe, “I want to serve the people of the church. Please call the Diocese and [redacted] and say it’s not true.”
Sandra Ribera Speed, Doe’s attorney, said the Diocese should have immediately reported the alleged sexual assault to police.
“Just because they’re over the age of consent does not mean that they consented,” Ribera Speed said. “That’s the issue here. There was no consent.”
On November 21, 2017, Livermore police served the search warrant on Dinh’s residence. According to the police report, the Diocese hired an attorney for Dinh, and detectives were unable able to interview him. In December, police concluded their investigation and forwarded the case to the District Attorney’s office, recommending Dinh be charged with two felonies: “Sodomy by force, violence, or fear” and “oral copulation by force or fear.”
However, the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office declined to file criminal charges against Dinh.
“Livermore PD did an amazing job,” Ribera Speed said. “I don’t know why charges were not brought.”
In a statement to NBC Bay Area, the District Attorney’s Office defended the decision not to charge Dinh.
“There are different standards of proof for a criminal prosecution and a civil lawsuit,” District Attorney Spokesperson Teresa Drenick said in a written statement. “In making a charging decision, the DA’s Office must be able to prove that sexual contact between the two adults occurred, and that the contact was non-consensual. In this case, the charging decision was made solely on the evidence that was presented to the office. After an exhaustive review, it was determined that we could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime was committed.”
Dinh did not respond to NBC Bay Area’s calls and texts for comment. The Diocese of Oakland sent a statement Tuesday to NBC Bay Area saying in part:
“The Diocese cooperated fully with the police investigation. After reviewing the results of the police investigation and the recommendation of the Diocesan Review Board, Bishop Michael Barber, SJ, asked for Father Dinh’s resignation as pastor of St. Michael Parish. The resignation was accepted on June 19, 2018. Father Dinh is still on administrative leave and restricted from public ministry or presenting himself in public as a Roman Catholic priest.”
A Tumultuous Month for the Diocese
The details of Dinh’s case are surfacing during a tumultuous month for the Diocese of Oakland. The Diocese placed Father Alexander Castillo on leave at the end of January following an allegation he sexually abused a minor. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) is also calling for an investigation into whether the Diocese, which waited several days to report the Castillo allegation to police, violated California’s mandated reporter laws.
And just last week, the Diocese released the names of more than 40 priests who have “credible accusations” of sexual abuse of minors. SNAP, which compiled its own list of priests accused of sexual assault, said the list should be about three times as long.
Conspicuously absent from the Diocese’s list was Father Dinh. A spokesperson for the Diocese told NBC Bay Area the list only contained the names of priests accused of abusing minors, and Dinh’s accuser was an adult. The Diocese said it does not have plans to release a list of priests credibly accused of sexually abusing adults.
“I believe that the release of that list was pure damage control,” said Tim Stier, a former priest within the Diocese of Oakland and vocal opponent of how the Catholic Church handles sexual abuse claims.
“Priests and bishops are taught to avoid scandal at any cost, and often, as in this case probably, it leads to the truth being muted or covered up.”
As the Catholic Church tries to repair its public image, Stier says there needs to be accountability for those in the upper echelon of the church.
“Unfortunately, I have no trust in bishops and dioceses in terms of being honest about this stuff,” Stier said.
Doe, who said he can no longer envision a life in the church for himself, echoed Stier’s sentiment.
“The Diocese needs to be held accountable,” he said.