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  Hispanics Suffer Clergy Abuse in a Culture of Silence

The Morning Journal [Hackensack NJ]
May 17, 2004

Robbie Acevedo does not fear the end.

For Acevedo, who is only 38, death will bring a welcome finality to a life of self-destructive behavior begun in his early teens and culminating in a broken marriage, a multitude of health problems, and ultimately, a death sentence.

Years of hard drinking have left him with hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver. Excruciating pain, in nearly every inch of his 5-foot-3-inch, 135-pound frame, is his constant companion.

"I'm so used to misery my whole life," said Acevedo, who speaks in a shaky, gravelly smoker's voice. "For me, dying means I'll finally be at peace. You get tired and you welcome that relief."

His downward spiral, Acevedo said, began when he was 12, during what should have been a happy, uplifting weekend retreat for children at a Paterson, N.J., church. A deacon separated Acevedo from the other children, took him down to the basement, made him disrobe, and raped him, the Dover, N.J., resident said.

In many ways, Acevedo experienced the range of feelings that people who were sexually abused by clergy members as children have described -- guilt, shame, trauma, and an inability to get close to others.

But Latinos such as Acevedo also have had to cope with a complex cultural dimension to their experience as well. The son of Puerto Ricans who were devout Catholics, strict with their four children, and unquestioning of authority, Acevedo feared no one would believe his story. In the Latino culture, talk about sex is often discouraged. And many parents, particularly in Latin-American countries, view sexual abuse as a family secret and a source of shame.

"My family protected us as kids, maybe too much," Acevedo said. "They didn't talk to us about things like sex, the things to watch out for, what is a good touch and what is a bad touch. I was very sheltered as a child, and I didn't understand what (Carlos) Guzman was doing to me, but I knew it was bad, it felt wrong. I was scared."

It took Acevedo 20 years to work up the courage to acknowledge what happened to him. This year, he joined a class-action lawsuit against the Diocese of Paterson and Bishop Frank J. Rodimer, alleging that the diocese could have prevented the abuse. Carlos Guzman, a deacon at the time he abused Acevedo, served part of a nine-month sentence. Today, his whereabouts are unknown.

And now, Acevedo is part of a new movement and aimed at persuading Hispanics who experienced abuse by a clergy member to join a new Latino chapter of SNAP, or Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. The chapter pays special attention to the unique cultural issues that face Hispanic victims.

Its founder, Johnny Vega, said the chapter is the first of its kind in the nation.

"Our parents didn't question hanging out with a priest," said Vega, who also was abused by Guzman. "They thought it was good, a good influence."

And that unwavering trust rubbed off on the children, he said.

"I felt safe when I was around the guy," Vega said of one of the clerics who was accused of abuse.

Acevedo felt dirty, tainted. He tried killing himself several times. He took a variety of drugs, including heroin. Even though he kept silent about the assault, he felt everyone knew somehow. So he avoided changing clothes in school locker rooms; he avoided urinals.

"I felt people would look at me and know," he said.

His anchor was liquor, which he chugged, no matter what the hour, no matter where he was.

"It helped me forget, because otherwise that rape was in my mind."

Leaning forward in his chair, and shifting a bit nervously, Acevedo told the group at its first meeting that Guzman "robbed me of my childhood."

He described how he took his pain out on his family. Of four children, he was the only one who fell into trouble. His parents could not figure out why.

"My mother would cry and ask why," Acevedo said. "Our parents were good people, we had a good family. They couldn't understand why I was so reckless."

Taking a deep breath and swallowing hard, he tells the other victims: "I took it out on my kids, just like I did on my wife."

Many of the dozen or so victims at the meeting described abuse that lasted years. Acevedo was abused that one time.

"But it changed me, it ruined my life," he said.

Acevedo said he felt pressured to overcompensate for fears that, in the Latino world, his masculinity would be doubted if someone learned about the abuse. So he acted ultra-macho, he said, affecting a swagger, drinking hard, living on the edge.

He developed a social phobia of sorts, and avoided being around others whenever possible. That is one reason he dropped out of school in the ninth grade.

Henry Acosta, the deputy director of the New Jersey Mental Health Institute and a leader in the state in raising awareness among Hispanics about mental health issues, sympathizes with the internal cultural struggles that dogged abuse victims such as Acevedo.

Hispanics, particularly poor immigrants, place clergy on an especially high pedestal because their parishes commonly help them obtain clothing, food, and shelter, Acosta explains. Beyond that, because Hispanics are reluctant to bring personal and family problems to strangers, and therefore shun counselors and therapists, they often turn instead to their pastor, making him a highly central figure in their lives, Acosta said.

"They find it less stigmatizing to go to their spiritual leader with their problems," he said. "Many of them here are too poor, and don't have the insurance, to be able to afford therapy. They turn to the church, the priest, who is accessible to everyone."

Amid the problems and suffering and the poverty in their lives, the church is the one thing many people in Latin America and in this country can still see as good, as something that "lets them believe that there is still some good in the world," said Acosta, who runs a program at the New Jersey Mental Health Institute called "Changing Minds, Advancing Mental Health for Hispanics."

Acevedo revealed his secret to his wife some 10 years ago, after she told him about a sad episode from her childhood. Eventually, in 1996, he told his siblings and his mother.

"I called a family meeting," he said. "I decided I had to talk about it, I couldn't keep it inside anymore. When I was done, they finally understood why I had been so different, so reckless, and always getting into trouble when that wasn't how we were raised."

But his father was living in Puerto Rico, and Acevedo was particularly afraid of telling him -- a strong man's man. He thought he would embarrass his father, or raise questions about why he did not stop Guzman -- again, throwing into question his masculinity.

He broke his silence on the matter with his father in February, a month after he joined the lawsuit and his name became publicly linked with the church sex abuse scandal.

"I didn't want him to find out from the newspapers," Acevedo said. "I told him what happened over the phone. His voice trembled. I could hear he was crying. He asked me why I had not gone to him at the time and told him what had happened to me. I told him how hard it was, and has been, for me. He was sympathetic and supportive."

But the spiritual strength he has mustered and steps he has taken to fight back in the last several years have not parlayed themselves into a will to live.

"I didn't think I'd live this long," Acevedo said. "God must have wanted me around longer than I should have been here to do these things, to help Latinos realize that they should not be ashamed, that they should face it and deal with it."

But isn't that a reason, Acevedo is asked, to want to fight to stay alive?

"Guzman took away my childhood; he took away my ability to feel," Acevedo said. "I've never been able to feel fully happy. I'm so tired. What kind of life would I be fighting to prolong? This man raped me, and has killed me, slowly."

 
 

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