By Nick Green
December 5, 2007
Mass was under way when 40-year-old Rita Milla walked through the doors of Carson's St. Philomena Church.
Last month's visit was the first the Carson resident had made to a Catholic church in two decades. Her visit was a personal exorcism of a sort, but she did not stop and pray.
The once devout Catholic forced herself to visit the room where in 1978 the then 43-year-old Rev. Santiago "Henry" Tamayo seduced the dowdy, insecure 16-year-old.
The liaison, Milla has long-maintained, led to a five-year cycle of abuse in which the vulnerable adolescent who once wanted to become a nun had sex with seven different priests on the pretext that it would "help them."
It continued with her willing banishment to the Philippines, ostensibly to study nursing, but where instead she gave birth to a child fathered by one of the priests.
And it ended with her abandonment by a faith that had been an integral part of her, by a church that sought to hide the sinners within its ranks from its parishioners and from itself.
"I had to go back and face what happened," Milla explained of her return to St. Philomena as she sat in the spacious Los Angeles offices of prominent attorney Gloria Allred.
"It was very hard just to breathe," she added. "It was like there is a ghost in that room."
But these days it is Milla and her 19-year-old daughter, Jacqueline, who are haunting a scandal-ridden church whose years of attempting to cover up decades of sexual abuse by supposedly celibate priests nationwide has unleashed an unprecedented barrage of seamy allegations.
"These cases are about a very serious betrayal of trust," Allred said. "The trust has been betrayed often by the church in that they've apparently attempted to cover up. . . . It's been a culture of secrecy to protect the church and the priests over the victim."
Mother and daughter want an apology and compensation for the loss of Jackie's parental relationship with her father.
They want an acknowledgment of the church's role in transferring and hiding priests implicated in sexual abuse.
Most of all, they want to know who Jackie's father is.
"Any child wants to know who their father is or who their mother is," said Jackie, 19, who herself is expecting a child fathered by her longtime boyfriend. "I think it's time he steps up to the plate. This kid wants to know where he's been for 19 years."
So far, said Allred, although she is "in correspondence" with the Los Angeles archdiocese that several weeks ago indicated a willingness to help, church officials have not been particularly forthcoming.
They have not, for instance, provided the locations of the priests, although at least one -- Tamayo -- has since died.
Still, Allred slapped one, whom she declined to identify, with a paternity suit. The goal is to have the man submit to DNA testing in an effort to determine whether Jackie is his illegitimate child.
"I'm happy and little bit scared I might be seeing him," Milla said. "I'm glad he's alive."
Archdiocese officials did not return a call Friday seeking comment.
While the church maintains its silence, Milla, her daughter and Allred have not.
Last month they held a news conference to publicize their demands.
Pop culture bellwether People magazine featured Milla in an extensive four-page article in a recent issue.
And Milla and Allred sat down with the Daily Breeze for an extensive interview, recounting what her life has been like for the past two decades.
Years of therapy and speaking publicly have helped Milla overcome the trauma of sexual abuse by authority figures she once believed in unconditionally.
Sitting across from the poised woman in the smart business attire she wears to her job as a medical assistant with a downtown Los Angeles firm, it is difficult to picture Milla as the frightened, insecure young woman she once was. Self-assured and quick to laugh, Milla answers questions with a candor borne of accepting what she cannot change and an understated resolve to confront what she can alter.
She wonders who else may be out there. Ashamed to come forward. Intimidated by the church's power. Alone.
When Allred filed a lawsuit against the archdiocese in 1984 -- eventually dismissed three years later when the California Supreme Court affirmed an appellate court decision that the statute of limitations had expired -- part of Milla's motivation was to ensure no one else endured what she had gone through.
"There have to be some good (priests)," she said. "But the church also isn't doing them any favors by hiding the bad ones."
Back then, her sensational claims were seen as an isolated incident.
As in the Enron debacle, while the alleged misdeeds were themselves startling, it is the pattern of stalling tactics and evasion that has exacerbated the original misconduct.
Given what happened to her, Milla is not surprised by the unfolding scandal.
"If they did this to me I knew they would do it to somebody else," she said. "I knew eventually people would have enough."
Indeed, for Milla the deep emotional wounds she suffered came not so much from the sexual abuse, but the church's reaction to her plight after she was shipped off to the Philippines to stay with Tamayo's brother on a one-way ticket in 1982 to give birth to the child she was carrying.
"I went over there to protect the church and once I was there I felt like they abandoned me," she said.
The pregnancy and birth were difficult.
Milla suffered eclampsia -- essentially a toxic reaction to pregnancy -- that included convulsions and unconsciousness. At one point, neither mother nor child were expected to survive and a Catholic bishop gave Milla the last rites, she said.
And in 1984, Bishop Juan A. Arzube went on the offensive, telling a Spanish-language television station that Milla was to blame for the events.
"This girl has had very bad actions even with altar boys," he said. "She is a person of bad reputation."
In fact, as a shy, overweight teen-ager, Milla was a virgin who hadn't even had one date with boys her own age, she said.
Jackie never fully realized what her mother had endured until a media interview earlier this year.
"If I were to see (my father), I wouldn't be the nicest person around," Jackie concedes. "I would tell him off. To tell you the truth, I want to kick his butt."
Whether that meeting will ever occur is unclear.
Allred isn't fully revealing her legal strategy; Rita's legal options may have narrowed, but Jackie's have not.
"As far as I'm concerned they haven't done anything for this child," Allred said. "They settled a lawsuit, but that was with Rita."
Allred remains convinced that until the church pays significant monetary damages officials will continue to evade responsibility.
As for Milla, she no longer believes in God. She also raised her daughter "religion-free."
To those who question whether she was truly a victim during those years of sexual abuse, Milla can only describe the strength of the moral authority priests wield.
"The priests were truly to me the representative of Jesus -- they were Jesus here on Earth," she said. "I felt like what they did to me, God did to me. . . . It was like I was in an abusive relationship with God."
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