Sonoma Parishioners Stunned by Accusations
Attendance reported down at Spanish Masses after allegations against priest

By Raquel Maria Dillon
Press Democrat
June 22, 2006

The accusations against the Rev. Xavier Ochoa and his sudden departure for Mexico have left the parishioners at Sonoma's St. Francis Solano Church confused and bereft.

"It was like a slap in the face," Maria Eva Cortez said in Spanish. "I can't tell you how awful it is. We feel pain, grief, mistrust and anguish."

The parish pastor, the Rev. Michael Kelly, did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday and Wednesday, and staff members in the rectory office would not comment. But several parishioners said attendance at the two weekly Spanish Masses was down since the sexual misconduct allegations surfaced.

"He was living another life, talking about God and the Bible but doing another thing," said Cortez, a volunteer eucharistic minister who brings Communion to the sick and home-bound. "And then he fled like a thief."

"I felt so depressed when my friend ... told me that her two sons didn't want to go to Mass."

Youth minister Mario Castillo described Ochoa as a popular and charismatic priest who advocated for the Mexican-American community, was always available to his parishioners and to the needy and used his pulpit to address social justice issues.

"He built this parish and did so many wonderful things, but then he left it behind," Castillo said. "People who I talk to, they don't believe it. In my own opinion, he might have made a mistake. I didn't think he was capable of that."

At the rectory this week, few were willing to talk about how the parish is dealing with the allegations against Ochoa.

"If he really did this, he'll pay for his sins," said an elderly woman who was picking up donated groceries from the St. Vincent de Paul food pantry. "I can't condemn him, only God can, so we pray for him. It's not being talked about at all here."

She declined to give her name and said she didn't know him well because he ministered to the Latino community.

Parishioner Irma Pulido said Mass attendance is down by a third, partially because the faithful were sad and disappointed with Ochoa, but also because many Spanish-speaking parishioners don't relate to the Anglo priests.

"For a while we had a different priest every week," said her mother, Maria, in Spanish. "We need another Hispanic priest, someone who understands our customs, who works with the community, someone we can talk to."

"My faith isn't based on a person, it's based on God," Irma Pulido said, pointing to the sky.

Castillo said that soon after the allegations surfaced Kelly spoke to the Hispanic Youth Group meeting.

"He explained that priests are men, that they live in a world of temptation and face their demons all the time, even more so because of their jobs," Castillo said.

He said Ochoa raised money to buy a portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico and a symbol of Mexican faith and national identity, for the church.

"He was my mentor, my friend, someone I looked up to and admired," Castillo said. "I still do."

Rosa Hernandez often turned to Ochoa for advice and felt honored to invite him to her home for dinner.

"Why wouldn't I? He said beautiful Masses," she said in Spanish. "Before, you could leave a child because it was a priest, so why not? But now you can't."

She said at first she didn't want to believe Ochoa had engaged in sexual misconduct.

"Sometimes people say things to get a priest kicked out," she said.

"He didn't have any enemies. He would just make friends with them, laugh in their faces and smoke his cigarettes," said Luz Hernandez, who organizes the Spanish-language prayer group. "He was very respected, but sometimes he used strong language."

Cindy Vrooman is a member of Voice of the Faithful, a group of Catholics dedicated to changing the church. It was started in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal in the Boston Archdiocese. She attends St. Leo's Church in Sonoma.

"The Hispanic community gives a great deal of respect and reverence to priests," she said. "It's touching. But this must really be hard for them. It goes deep. I'm a little more realistic, or maybe cynical."

She said her group held seminars to educate Catholics about clergy sexual abuse, but there was no outreach to parishioners who speak Spanish and no Latino families came.

Fourteen years after the first allegations of sexual abuse surfaced in the diocese, Vrooman said local church leaders still are too careful about what they say and too protective of priests.

"We're very trusting," Cortez said. "You never think it could happen to us, Hispanics and Mexicans."

Cortez was sympathetic to the priests who serve their communities.

"It's a difficult job because of the loneliness," she said. "Priests don't have families and we understand that. But what's horrifying to me is what happens to the victims."


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