A staffer at a Catholic church in Yakima, Washington accidentally found illicit pictures of underage boys on the printer of Father Darell Mitchell nearly 20 years ago, reported it to authorities, and inadvertently set into motion a series of life-changing events for just about everyone involved.
That story is finally being told thanks to reporter Joel Donofrio of the Yakima Herald-Republic in a series of articles published on Sunday. (They’re behind a paywall, but go support local journalism. It’s good for everyone.)
The history of Father Darell Mitchell
Here’s what we knew before this weekend: In September of 2003, pictures of naked boys were discovered on a printer owned by Father Darell Mitchell, who worked at Holy Family Catholic Church in Yakima. The pictures were reported to Bishop Carlos Sevilla as well as the Diocesan Lay Advisory Board, whose chair, attorney Russell Mazzola, contacted the police.
So far, so good, as far as handling the situation. But it went downhill from there. The FBI investigated the matter for over a year but chose not to file charges against anyone. Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Ron Zirkle made the same decision, saying that the pictures weren’t necessarily “sexually explicit,” therefore he couldn’t take further action.
Mitchell wasn’t even around while all this was happening. A week after the pictures were discovered, the Diocese told his parishioners that Mitchell had suffered from a “nervous breakdown” and that’s why he couldn’t be their priest for the time being. That was obviously a lie—or, at the very least, not the entire story. (Mitchell did, in fact, spend months in a treatment center.)
Months later, Mitchell got a new gig… about six minutes down the road at St. Paul Cathedral, where he continued working as if nothing had ever happened. (Even more disturbing? That church oversees a K-8 school.) Mazzola, the advisory board chair, defended the move by saying at the time, “We didn’t have any victim, and there wasn’t even a hint of other allegations.”
Criminal charges or not, though, the people attending the church were never told the true story of why Mitchell was no longer their priest. The Catholic Church’s leaders kept them in the dark about a very serious allegation, even as Mitchell continued interacting with the public as well as children. The Church insisted that Mitchell was being monitored the entire time, but parishioners said that wasn’t always true; Mitchell even attended a “Catholic teen retreat” at one point.
The priest was “hounded by SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) and people in the community here,” [Monsignor John Ecker, vicar general of the Catholic Diocese of Yakima] said.
“If they had stopped hassling him, he’d be fine,” he said.
Why can’t those sexual abuse survivors and their advocates just keep their mouths shut about a priest who had pictures of naked boys on his computer?… is quite a take from a Church leader. It’s not unexpected. It just reveals a complete lack of self-awareness.
Father Darell Mitchell and the printer problem
Lost in this entire story was a rather important detail: How did those pictures even get discovered?
Frank Murray has held on to that story for nearly two decades, but last week, he sat down with Donofrio, the reporter, and revealed that he was the guy who found those pictures. Murray was a youth minister and, later, a pastoral assistant at Holy Family, working under Mitchell. In 2003, Darell Mitchell was having some problems with his printer and asked Murray for help.
Murray, who was supposed to be out of town had his car not broken down, stopped by the office and realized it was a simple fix: The printer’s cord wasn’t connected in the right slot. He made the quick adjustment and pressed a button to print whatever was in the queue.
Out came color photos of nude boys.
“The first thing I did was call (my wife) Linda, and said, ‘I think I might be in trouble at work.’”
He immediately reported what he found to both Mazzola (the advisory board chair) and later spoke with Sevilla. When Sevilla told the church about Mitchell’s supposed nervous breakdown, Murray couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
He recalled Monsignor Ron Metha, chancellor of the diocese, meeting with the staff at Holy Family on Monday, Sept. 29, and saying Mitchell had suffered a psychiatric breakdown due to the stress of leading such a large parish — a statement Murray knew was not true.
“I sat there knowing he was lying, knowing that breakdown had to do with being caught with the pictures,” Murray said. “I obviously didn’t say anything at that point.
“(Metha) then said he wanted to talk with me privately, and we went into another office,” Murray added. “He asked me to keep all of this to myself, said (the diocese) was trying to get Father Darell some help … that’s when he told me, ‘If this gets out, no bishop in the country would hire Father Darell as a priest.’”
Murray said Metha, who now works as a chaplain at Luke Air Force Base in Glendale, Ariz., also told him to ask his wife, Linda, not to talk about the photos or there would be “consequences.”
It was a textbook case of the Church covering up an alleged crime in order to protect its own reputation. For his part, Murray had followed the Church’s protocols for such situations and only spoke with law enforcement officials about what he had found. And yet when the media found out a priest was being investigated, it was Murray who got blamed.
Murray said he was asked by diocesan officials if he talked to the media about the photos.
“I told them I didn’t do this myself — I didn’t tell the story to the TV station,” Murray said in his June 10 interview. “I didn’t know the story was given to the TV station until just before the story ran.
“That’s when the retaliation and the cover-up got serious,” he added.
Murray eventually lost his job in 2006. A spokesperson for the Diocese said last week that the decision had everything to do with budgets and downsizing… but c’mon. It didn’t help that Murray himself was at the center of numerous rumors over the course of those few years:
Eventually, some parishioners at Holy Family — including members of the parish council — began to believe that Murray might have planted the naked boys’ photos on Mitchell’s printer, a false rumor that was impossible, Murray noted, due to the time stamp on the pictures, which was from the day before Murray went to fix the computer.
“They called me in (for a meeting) and told me, ‘It looks like a lot of what you do could be done by a talented secretary.’ My ministries had shrunk by this point … I was doing the bulletin, all the information for ministries, stuff like that,” Murray told the Herald-Republic. “So they told me I could stay if I wanted, but I was going to move into the office, into more of a secretarial/administrative role, and my salary would be cut by $1,000 a month.“
Here’s the good news: After leaving that position, at age 55, Murray found a new job where he could be a voice for children who suffered from abuse:
… Murray was hired by the Yakima County juvenile court system, and also became an advocate for abused and neglected children in the foster care system under the CASA program. After working for a year and half as a court-appointed advocate for 90 to 100 children, Murray became the supervisor of the program, a role he held for roughly 8½ to 9 years, he said.
Later, he worked from December 2018 through May 2019 to help the county fulfill and retain a grant to develop a children’s advocacy center at the county courthouse. This center provided children who were victims of sexual abuse with a place to tell their story, one time, to forensic interviewers.
He believes his background as a youth minister helped, both with the experience of working with children and having empathy for their situations. Murray said he helped develop a restorative community service program, providing youths who committed a misdemeanor with service opportunities.
It wasn’t a job he ever envisioned for himself, but he stumbled into a role where his voice was sorely needed.
The aftermath of the Mitchell saga
In his reporting, Donofrio also discovered one other interesting tidbit: In 2019, Bishop Sevilla, the guy in charge when all this drama was unfolding, received a rare reprimand from the Vatican. He was allegedly called out for causing “scandal or a grave disturbance of order.” While such reprimands are doled out against corrupt Church leaders, it’s highly unusual to see something like this in response to a whistleblower’s discovery.
It’s also not very meaningful. As one Church watchdog put it, “It’s a disgracefully modest penalty. This is basically a slap on the wrist.”
Even more damning? It’s not like the Diocese made this announcement publicly. We only know about it because of Robert Fontana, another former staffer at the Diocese who also claims he lost his job for criticizing how the Bishop handled allegations of abuse.
… Fontana was informed of the Vatican’s reprimand of Sevilla during a private meeting with the archbishop and one of his associates, during which Fontana said he was prohibited from taking notes.
“I’m very grateful Archbishop Etienne shared this with me, and initiated the investigation. I’m gratified that Sevilla was found to be doing something harmful to the church,” Fontana said. “I’m extremely disappointed that no statement was ever made to lay and clergy employees that if you are a whistleblower, we’re going to stand with you and support you 100%.
“This is such a secret, internal, private matter in the church — that the reprimand would not be public. And so, ironically, it puts me and Frank in the position of being whistleblowers again, to expose this,” he added. “Are we going to be protected now that we exposed this, are we going to be vilified?
“The rules of the Vatican I believe are woefully inadequate, especially with this not being made public,” Fontana said.
Even when the Vatican tries to do something right, it manages to screw it up.
There’s one other aspect of this story that isn’t getting much attention: Murray said last week that “I’m not a Catholic [anymore], period.” You have to imagine a number of the parishioners who were lied to are also no longer Catholic or at least disillusioned by faith. How many of those worshipers would have remained in the Church, do you think, had its leaders taken the allegations of abuse more seriously? Or if they had been more transparent about how they were handling a troubling situation?
Ultimately, it’s the Church’s inability to handle sexual abuse responsibly and openly that’s pushing so many people out of the faith. It’s not atheists. It’s not Satan. It’s this awful desire to protect the Church’s leaders even when doing so may put others in harm’s way. When it comes to the growing exodus out of the pews, the Catholic Church has no one to blame but itself.