Latino Ex-Altar Boy Says 'Machismo' Fueled Pain
By Brian Spadora
July 23, 2006
JERSEY CITY — To this day, Johnny Vega said, the sound of church bells transforms him back into the terrified boy from Paterson who was sexually abused by a priest as well as a deacon.
In those moments, his pain is raw and real. But he has learned to cope with the past and to reach out to others struggling as he has, he said.
Vega spoke about his experience Saturday at the national conference of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, the country's first support group for people abused by religious authority figures.
More than 300 people attended the conference at the Hyatt Regency Hotel on the Hudson, organizers said.
"I'm in no sense healed. I still go through pains," Vega said. But attending the last three annual SNAP national conferences has helped, he said.
"Now, it's my turn to reach out to those I see alone at these conferences, because I've been there."
Vega said it took him decades of suffering, including three suicide attempts, before he could tell anyone what happened when he was a teenage altar boy at St. John the Baptist Cathedral in Paterson. Vega alleges that the Rev. Jose Alonso and Carlos Guzman, the deacon there at the time, sexually assaulted him over a period of about six years.
He could not press charges against either man because the statute of limitations had expired by the time he went public with his claims a few years ago.
Alonso pleaded guilty to molesting another altar boy and his brother in 1987. He served four and a half years of a five-year sentence in a state treatment center for sex offenders and died in 2002. Carlos Guzman, the deacon, was dismissed by the Diocese of Paterson in the 1980s after separate allegations of abuse surfaced. His whereabouts are unknown, Vega said.
Vega was one of 27 alleged victims of sexual abuse who reached a $5 million settlement with the diocese last year.
Vega, who grew up in Paterson and lives in Jefferson, led a panel discussion Saturday about the challenges faced by Hispanic victims of abuse by priests.
The Latino notion of "machismo," the notion that a man must always be in control and unaffected by pain, makes it particularly hard for Hispanic men to disclose sexual abuse, he said.
At the same time, the Latino community's reverence for the Catholic Church makes it difficult for Hispanics to speak even to their families about being abused by clergy, said Eric Barragon, a SNAP member who appeared on the panel with Vega. Many Hispanic survivors of abuse have been ostracized and threatened by their neighbors and family for speaking out against their abusers.
"The Church is not where we go," Barragon said during the presentation. "It's who we are."
To help confront these issues, Vega founded SNAP Latino in 2004. The group, which is the first SNAP chapter created to help Hispanic victims of sexual abuse by clergy, meets the first Sunday of each month in Totowa.
David Clohessy, the national director of SNAP, said Vega has taken a step toward addressing a "huge need."
"There is an enormous disparity in terms of power, and knowledge, and sophistication, and wealth and status between a Catholic priest and a child," Clohessy said. "And in most minority families, that gap is dramatically higher." Vega said he hopes that each victim who comes forward will encourage others to follow.
"That's my dream," he said during the panel, "that some day we can be there and help some of those survivors who I'm sure are going to come out someday."
For more information on SNAP Latino, call 973-766-5214, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reach Brian Spadora at 973-569-7132 or email@example.com.
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