LOS ANGELES - Robert Van Handel was a 15-year-old seminarian at St. Anthony's, a prestigious Franciscan boarding school, when, he said, a priest slipped into the infirmary where he was recovering from a fever and began to molest him. The priest told him it would help draw the fever out.
More than a decade later, Van Handel himself was molesting children while working as a Franciscan priest at the same Santa Barbara boarding school. Van Handel formed a boys' choir for local children and chose his victims from among its ranks for eight years.
The sexual abuse at St. Anthony's, including Van Handel's own account of his crimes, is included in more than 4,000 pages from the confidential files of nine Franciscan religious brothers who were accused of abuse. The internal files, coupled with an additional 4,000 pages of sworn testimony obtained by The Associated Press, are the largest release of a religious order's files to date and paint one of the fullest pictures yet of a pervasive culture of abuse that affected generations of students at the seminary dedicated to training future Franciscans.
The religious order settled for $28 million in 2006 with plaintiffs who alleged abuse by the nine Franciscans, but Van Handel and other defendants fought the release of their private files for six years in a legal battle that reached the California Supreme Court.
The files were obtained by The Associated Press from a plaintiff's attorney ahead of them being made public Wednesday.
The documents show how abuse in a religious order can be closely tied to the formation of children who grow up to become brothers and priests, said Terence McKiernan, founder and co-director of Bishop Accountability.org, which collects documents on clergy sex abuse and posted the Franciscan files online Wednesday.
"One offender bringing kids in can set them up to be abused by another offender and those kids in turn grow up to become a member of the order and themselves begin abusing children," he said. "The generational phenomenon of abuse is really, really clear in these documents and it's a heartbreaking story."
Brian Brosnahan, an attorney representing the Franciscans, said the files do not show that the Franciscans knew of the abuse at the school or by other Franciscans included in the settlement. The religious order was quicker than most to address concerns about sexual abuse and launched an investigation into the abuse at St. Anthony's in 1992, years before other Roman Catholic institutions took up the issue, Brosnahan said.
Two plaintiffs have alleged sexual abuse since then, but an Orange County jury rejected their claims last year. There have been no other allegations since 1993, he said.
"In general, if you look at it, you'll find the Franciscans were among the most progressive," Brosnahan said.
The Franciscans played a pivotal role in bringing Christianity to California. Its members — known for wearing brown, hooded cloaks — emphasize the poverty and humility of their founder, St. Francis of Assisi.
The soft-spoken, bespectacled priest Van Handel, who is now 65 and living as a registered sex offender in Santa Cruz County, admitted his crimes and is the only priest of the nine Franciscans to be criminally convicted. He detailed his actions in a "sexual autobiography" and in court papers that are included in his confidential files.
He said his biggest concern was "the actual and potential damage I've caused to young men, the Friars and the Catholic Church," he told a probation officer in 1994, according to his file.
Messages left for Van Handel at his home address in Boulder Creek, Calif., and at his employer's office Tuesday weren't immediately returned.
Van Handel, who graduated from St. Anthony's in 1965 and later taught there for a decade, has been accused of molesting 19 people, many of them young boys he met while directing the community choir he founded while at the school. The choir drew young children from outside the seminary and toured Europe.
Van Handel would choose his victims from the choir — often preferring vulnerable and lost-looking children — and would photograph them nude, sometimes covered in oil, dressed in pauper's clothing or tied up with rope in the seminary's tower. He also would play tickling and touching games, according to his files.
He abused at least one victim at the seminary, where the child would spend the night with Van Handel because his mother worked odd hours as a chef.
One of his alleged victims, Bob Eckert, said he never thought at the time what Van Handel was doing was wrong. The priest helped the 10-year-old Eckert shower with other boys while the choir was touring Europe and then photographed him, Eckert said.
"I completely looked up to him. He was the one who determined who was going to be in and who was going to be out," said Eckert, who is now a 42-year-old general contractor living in Santa Barbara. "My mom had total faith in him, and I had no question that anything was wrong with being there."