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SAN FRANCISCO: Episcopal Church under fire for parolee priest

SAN FRANCISCO: Episcopal Church under fire for parolee priest

by Matthai Kuruvila, Chronicle Religion Writer
July 18, 2008

James Tramel went from convicted murderer to priest while in prison, a transformation that the Episcopal Church used to successfully lobby for his parole and celebrate him before politicians and the press.

But the church is now grappling with the sexual abuse of a parishioner under his care. Tramel has been suspended for sexual misconduct, temporarily stripped of his priestly authority and left searching for a new job.

The San Francisco-based Episcopal Diocese of California now faces questions of whether, in its haste to proclaim Tramel's story, it redeemed and promoted him too quickly.

Convicted of second-degree murder in a 1985 slaying, Tramel went to seminary and was ordained a priest while incarcerated in a state prison in Solano County. After he was paroled early in 2006, at the urging of the Episcopal bishop of California, Tramel was quickly placed at the helm of the historic Trinity Episcopal Church in San Francisco.

It's there that the victim said Tramel, who is married and has a young child, took advantage of her during counseling sessions. "They didn't give an honest depiction of this man," said the victim, a 36-year-old San Francisco resident. The Chronicle does not identify victims of sexual abuse.

The diocese acknowledges that Tramel abused his power and committed sexual misconduct, according to diocesan spokesman Sean McConnell, as well as a letter from diocesan Chancellor William Orrick and other documents. Tramel has been suspended for two years, but he can apply for reinstatement after the suspension is served. Tramel did not return calls.

The victim has asked for $265,000 for therapy and to move from her rent-controlled apartment, which is near the Bush Street church, where the relationship started. She also asked that Tramel be prohibited from resuming priestly duties. The diocese countered with an offer for "spiritual support" - an offer the victim said infuriated her because it would replicate the situation in which she was taken advantage of.

But the diocese is adamant about its stand. "That's the only thing the diocese felt - and feels - it owed to her," said Lawrence Lossing, the diocese's outside counsel. The victim said she wanted to go to church because she was a struggling alcoholic.

God or "a higher power" plays a key role in 12-step recovery programs, but she says she didn't understand the concept. She thought going to church would help. She chose Trinity, the oldest Episcopal church on the West Coast. When she started attending Trinity in 2007, Tramel encouraged her to come to him for counseling, and they began having sex, she says and the church acknowledges.

Sex between a priest and a parishioner he or she counsels is against church laws, with no exceptions. The victim says she feels like Tramel manipulated her into the situation.

The victim said the diocese and its current bishop, the Rt. Rev. Marc Andrus, failed to supervise him adequately. "I feel like the reason they rushed him was because he was such a compelling story," said the woman.

Andrus declined to comment. He is in England at the once-a-decade gathering of bishops in the Anglican Communion, the 77 million-member global body that is represented in the United States by the Episcopal Church. The Telegraph, an English newspaper, named him this week as one of the 20 most influential Anglicans in the world.

When Tramel was placed at Trinity, Andrus approved the decision. Yet Lossing said Andrus had no power in the situation involving Tramel. "Obviously, Andrus is nothing but the representative, the titular head of the diocese," Lossing said. "He doesn't have any individual legal investment here."

But the victim said Andrus should have taken more action to supervise a priest with a murder rap. "If Andrus had taken his responsibility more seriously, this wouldn't have happened," she said. Tramel's story was once told as a triumph over past history.

Tramel was 17 and a student at a Santa Barbara prep school in 1985 when he and a classmate, David Kurtzman, sought to retaliate against gang members who had harassed a group of friends, according to trial transcripts. Instead, they found 29-year-old Michael Stephenson. Kurtzman stabbed Stephenson to death. Police described it as a "thrill kill."

Tramel, who did nothing to help the victim, according to transcripts, was deemed a ringleader and sentenced to 15 years to life. He admitted his role in the killing, according to parole hearing transcripts. While in prison, Tramel earned a business degree and a master's degree in theology from the Church Divinity of the Pacific in Berkeley, the Episcopal seminary.

He was ordained by then-Bishop William Swing in 2005. He became a member of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Berkeley and as a clergyman gave sermons via telephone there every few months. Swing used his 2005 Easter sermon to call Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger a "90-pound moral weakling" for refusing to parole Tramel earlier. And when Tramel was released, Swing referred to Tramel's transformation as proof of the resurrecting power of Jesus Christ.

Tramel's parole in March 2006 was bitterly fought by Edward Stephenson, 79, the father of the murder victim. He's not surprised that Tramel is accused of taking advantage of a vulnerable parishioner after being paroled.

"He's a manipulator," Stephenson said. "The church wanted to show that he was a real good guy," Stephenson said. "You've got a lot of people behind him with a lot of power."


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