Investigative Unit

Now-Deceased California Priest Raped Teen and Gave Him HIV, Lawsuit Alleges

The allegations come at a time when Catholic dioceses across California are being hit with a wave of new child sex abuse lawsuits enabled by a recent state law

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The 1982 scene is still imprinted in Steven Chavez’s mind: His mom sitting at the kitchen table of their Santa Clara, California home, an ashtray brimming with cigarette butts in front of her, holding a letter that spelled out her son’s likely death sentence. 

Chavez was heading to West Point after graduating from high school at the top of his class, he said, but that was before a blood test revealed HIV in the teen’s system.

“They told me I had less than six months to live,” Chavez said. “To get my things in order.”

Chavez’s story began just a year before, in 198, as a teenager. The altar boy and straight-A student had his sights set on the White House.

That is, he said, until he met the new priest in town.

“When I met Fr. Bettencourt, I thought, ‘Wow, he’s a nice guy. He’s handsome. He looked really young, closer to my age,’” Chavez said.

The encounter, as Chavez recounted in his lawsuit, would forever change the course of his life.

“He invited me to his house to watch movies, so I rode my bike over to his house,” Chavez said.

“He had a big pile of cocaine around the table and some marijuana and he started feeding me drinks. I got really high and the next thing I know I passed out. When I woke up, he was on top of me and I asked him to quit, but he didn’t. When I went home, I bled for three days.”

NBC Bay Area
Fr. Thomas Bettencourt, pictured in a 1986 directory for the Diocese of San Jose

His terrified parents soon pried loose the dark secret Chavez had kept for months about Father Thomas Bettencourt, the priest Chavez says drugged and raped him, and, as he later learned, infected him with HIV – all before he turned 17. Four decades later, Chavez is still alive. His former secret is now the foundation of a recent lawsuit brought against the Archdiocese of San Francisco and the Diocese of San Jose.

When asked how he knew it was Fr. Bettencourt that gave him HIV, Chavez said he was a virgin before being sexually assaulted by the priest.

“It makes you feel like you’re just a piece of [expletive], a piece of meat that’s not good anymore, like you’re spoiled,” Chavez said.

Steven Chavez shows his own artwork hanging on the walls of his Palm Springs home.

Chavez sued the Catholic church last year, joining hundreds of Northern California clergy abuse plaintiffs empowered by a 2019 law permitting Californians to file new lawsuits based on older childhood sexual abuse claims otherwise barred by the statute of limitations.

“Steven getting his story out there will hopefully help other people that were also abused by Father Bettencourt come forward,” said Matthew Haynie, Chavez’s attorney.

Church records show Bettencourt moved on to another parish in 1982, before dying in 1990. It wasn’t until then that Chavez said he revealed the priest’s name to his father, who filed a report with the Diocese of San Jose. The accusation, however, was quickly dismissed by church officials, according to the lawsuit.

Bettencourt died of AIDS, according to a small Catholic college in Kansas, which says the priest left them more than a quarter-million dollars from his estate. Chavez, meanwhile, survives on disability payments that cover his life-long medical bills.

Because of the ongoing lawsuit, the Diocese of San Jose said it couldn’t respond to the accusations, or whether church officials knew at the time the priest may have had HIV or AIDS.

But church records show Chavez likely wasn’t the only person to accuse Bettencourt of sexually abusing them. An internal list of priests accused of child sex abuse released by the Diocese of San Jose a few years back details an apparently separate accusation against the priest from 1982, a year after Chavez alleges he was victimized. 

An NBC Bay Area review of recent lawsuits filed against Northern California Catholic dioceses also turned up another recent lawsuit accusing Bettencourt of sexual abuse in the late 1970s, when the priest was employed by the Archdiocese of San Francisco, before the Diocese of San Jose split off in 1981. The attorney handling that case never responded to inquiries from NBC Bay Area.

Haynie said lawsuits like his client’s will reveal new depths to the clergy abuse scandal, especially in places where bishops have remained quiet, such as San Francisco.

“[The Catholic church] is still not 100% transparent, as given by the fact that the Archdiocese of San Francisco still, to this day, hasn’t released a list,” Haynie said.

Haynie’s talking about the internal church lists detailing priests who have been accused of abusing children. In response to a 2018 grand jury report out of Pennsylvania that found more than 300 priests in the state had been accused of child sex abuse, and that church officials helped cover up their crimes, bishops across the country took a major step towards transparency, many of them making those lists public for the first time.

Every California bishop has released such a list, except for Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco.

Without San Francisco’s list, the public can’t tell if the Archdiocese knew of complaints against Fr. Bettencourt that came before Chavez says he was sexually assaulted by the priest. 

"It's our belief that the church knew or should have known that Fr. Bettencourt was an abuser of minors like Steven," Haynie said.

A spokesperson sent the Investigative Unit a statement saying they’ll address sex abuse allegations through the “appropriate legal channels.” Another spokesperson for the Archdiocese said they had no plans to release a list because the names of San Francisco’s accused priests are “already in the public domain.” She declined to answer follow-up questions about what exactly that means.

More than 40 years after Chavez said he was sexually assaulted, he’s hoping to get a measure of justice for the first time. He never thought he’d live long enough to see it.

“I’m 58 and just celebrated my birthday,” Chavez said. “I never thought I’d see gray hair.”

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