|Parishioners Rally behind Priest Accused of Sexual Abuse
By David Olson
November 23, 2010
When allegations of child sexual molestation against the Rev. Alejandro "Alex" Jose Castillo were made public in September, parishioners created a group to defend the Ontario Catholic priest.
Castillo was jailed last month on charges of felony sex crimes against a 12-year-old boy. The Coalition to Exonerate Fr. Alex raised $24,000 to bail him out. Each Friday night, parishioners gather for a four-hour vigil to pray for him.
The coalition is one of at least 200 groups that have formed around the country to support clergy accused of sexual abuse, according to Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. After almost every allegation of priest sexual abuse, at least some parishioners vocally defend the accused, a reflection of the deference toward and admiration of priests among many congregants, said David Clohessy, the national director of SNAP.
Clohessy said such vocal support risks intimidating potential abuse victims, making it less likely they will come forward.
"Inadvertently, these parishioners are enabling predatory behavior," he said. "I can't tell you how many women and men have said, 'I was told by my predator that no one would believe me if I spoke up.' "
Tracy Tolbert, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Cal State Long Beach and an expert on predatory behavior, said it is especially common for people to not believe allegations against their priest, minister or rabbi.
Priests "are seen as the next thing to God," Tolbert said. "If you have strong religious beliefs, they think it's impossible for him to do wrong, even if you put the evidence right in front of them."
Ted Campos, director of the Ontario coalition, said parishioners are convinced of Castillo's innocence. Campos said he respects SNAP's advocacy of abuse victims, but "we believe the accusations have to be flawed."
The parents of the alleged victim contacted the Diocese of San Bernardino in June and, after a special diocesan panel found the allegations "credible," a letter revealing the accusations was read Sept. 11 and 12 at the four Inland parishes where Castillo served, diocesan spokesman John Andrews said. The diocese barred him from active ministry in June.
The coalition, made up of about 30 core members and support by hundreds more people, formed because parishioners believed it was unfair for the diocese to reveal the allegations before Castillo was charged, Campos said. The organization is now focused on supporting the priest and raising money for his legal defense, he said.
Castillo, 57, pleaded not guilty to seven counts of lewd and lascivious acts with a child under age 14 and one count of forcible lewd and lascivious acts with a child under age 14. The alleged acts occurred in late 2008, when Castillo was pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Ontario, where he had served since 2003.
Ontario police say they believe there were at least four other victims, two of whom were adults at the time of the alleged incidents. Police are investigating alleged sexual abuse involving a 14-year-old boy, but the cases involving the other three cannot be prosecuted because the statute of limitations has expired, Ontario police Sgt. David McBride said.
Castillo is living in a diocesan-owned home in Banning. He wears an electronic-monitoring device and is forbidden from having contact with minors.
Campos, 43, has known Castillo for eight years. His wife, Isabel Mora-Campos, 46, first met him in 1982, when Castillo was a young priest in her East Los Angeles neighborhood. The couple have sometimes spent hours talking with Castillo and consider him among their closest friends.
"When you walk side by side with someone for so long, you definitely know the intent of their heart," Campos said. "You get to know the character of a person and know what's in that person's realm of possibility. We truly believe this is not in his realm of possibility."
Campos was speaking Friday night in the chilly night air outside Our Lady of Guadalupe, to honor a diocesan request to not hold coalition activities on church property.
Inside the simple, wood-ceiling church, about 90 people prayed and sang. The church had long had a monthly Friday night vigil and parishioners in September inaugurated a weekly vigil, to pray for Castillo, Campos said.
Group members raise money for Castillo's defense after weekend Masses, Campos said. The bail money came from hundreds of parishioners. People in the working-class and low-income neighborhoods near the church and the other three parishes where Castillo served scraped together as much as they could afford, Campos said.
Castillo supporters said the priest was dedicated to his parishioners, ardently speaking on behalf of immigrant rights -- many congregants are Mexican immigrants -- organizing health fairs and attracting standing-room-only crowds at Mass with inspiring homilies.
When Mora-Campos was a teenager, Castillo was a regular guest at her parents' dinner table. Castillo presided over Mora-Campos' wedding, and he rushed to East Los Angeles from Sacramento in 1999 -- Castillo was working at the time for the California Catholic Conference -- to preside over her father's funeral.
"He's always been a part of my life," Mora-Campos said.
She and her husband live in Fontana, but every six weeks or so, they traveled to Our Lady of Guadalupe to hear Castillo celebrate Mass.
Cecilia Lombera, 25, first met Castillo when he was at St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Rialto. She credits him with inspiring her and other young parishioners to attend college and contribute to society.
"Father Alex always made time for people like me," Lombera said. "He always gave without expecting anything in return."
Karen Schmauss, the San Bernardino County deputy district attorney handling Castillo's case, said she understands why the priest's parishioners support him.
"A good 85 to 90 percent of (child molestation) caseloads involve fine citizens in every other respect," said Schmauss, who has prosecuted hundreds of accused child molesters. "It's not mutually exclusive to be a good father, an upstanding member of the community or even a good spiritual leader and be a child molester."
Reach David Olson at 951-368-9462 or dolson@PE.com
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