Oxnard Man Worries Clergy Scandal Will Fade from Public Memory
By Tom Kisken
Ventura County Star
January 5, 2013
|Manny Vega visits Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Oxnard. Vega was an altar boy who said he was molested at the church more than 30 years ago by the Rev. Fidencio Silva. Now he and others want records about abusive priests released to the public without any information redacted.|
More than 30 years after he claims an Oxnard priest molested him, 11 years after terrorist attacks unearthed buried memories, five years after a $660 million settlement brought a church promise to release clergy abuse files, and one day before a court hearing on those still-unreleased files, Manny Vega worries about the truth.
"Are we any closer today than we were 10 years ago?" he said in a work office decorated with Marine posters. "I don't know. I don't think so."
On Monday, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Emilie Elias is expected to rule on an earlier decision to redact the names of cardinals, bishops and other Catholic Church leaders in files that may show what they knew about molesting priests and when they knew it.
Although more than 230 priests and lay people associated with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles were accused of molestation in a scandal that exploded in 2002, the files of 69 priests are currently set for release, possibly by the end of the month.
Archdiocese representatives said they are following the orders of the retired federal judge assigned to handle the release of records. Lawyers for the plaintiffs said they're fighting to reveal more information about the scandal and are pushing for the release of additional files, although Vega worries their efforts slowed after the record clergy abuse settlement.
"That was great hush money. It shut everyone up. I regretted it from day one," said the 46-year-old Oxnard man, who alleges he was molested by a Catholic priest starting when he was 11. Vega worries that what he wants people to know most — who hid what — won't be revealed.
"You know that truth is there underneath that black ink and you can't even see it," he said.
Graying at the sideburns, still identifying himself as Catholic, Vega is a former Marine who received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal of heroism for pulling people out of a burning helicopter in South Korea. He's a retired Oxnard police detective — a former police officer of the year — who journeyed as a private investigator to Puerto Rico and Ecuador in search of abusive priests.
He lives in a sprawling home financed by his sandblasting and paint-coating business and with money from the church settlement. He can't reveal what he received because of the terms of the settlement but said the money gives him the freedom needed to keep fighting the church.
When his son was 6, he asked his father to explain what the priest did, bringing a vague answer about parts of the body. Now, both his children have listened to countless interviews where their father explains the abuse in detail, he said.
His wife calls him a survivor, not a victim. She said he doesn't dwell on his past but also doesn't hide from the responsibility of fighting for what he sees as the truth.
He's an advocate who played a pivotal role in the fight for the California legislation that temporarily lifted a statute of limitations and triggered the wave of about 800 molestation lawsuits statewide against the Catholic church. He camped out for a week in front of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels with a sign that read "Victims Deserve Truth and Honesty."
In courtrooms filled with lawyers, Vega is sometimes the only plaintiff, in the back, in a suit and tie. When reporters write about priest records, when "The Today Show" wants to spend Easter with an abuse victim, they go to Vega.
"Instead of sitting there, he's out there doing stuff," said John Enriquez, another former altar boy who alleges he was abused by the same priest as Vega. "He's like a hero."
The question that gets Vega is this: When will the scandal end?
"I don't know," he said. "For me personally, the end is when I die."
Face to face with cardinal
He worries people will forget. He worries they will one day associate the scandal with greedy victims rather than the priests accused of molesting children who saw them as embodiments of God, and the church he believes hid their acts. He worries words like sexual abuse and molestation are used so often that people gloss over the evil they represent.
When he sat face to face with Cardinal Roger Mahony in a victims meetings that followed the settlement, he asked the then-leader of the archdiocese if he understood the definition of sodomy.
Although Mahony said he did, Vega painted an unblinking image of the act. He said he explained the pain, the violence, the smell and the noise. He said a church employee in the room broke down crying. Vega's wife, who was there, said the cardinal stayed stoic.
Vega did it to make sure his point was not missed.
"You have to put yourself in that time and space," he said. "It's grotesque. It's wrong in so many ways. You throw God on top of that ... holy cow."
The Rev. Fidencio Silva supervised the altar boys at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Oxnard. He was later assigned to the archdiocese's Hispanic Young Adult Ministry. He was a philosopher, a faith adviser and an artist who, according to Vega, often depicted Jesus nude.
When Vega was 11 and felt ill, the priest said he could examine him if he dropped his pants, Vega said. Then the priest fondled him in the first of a series of molestations over five years that included digital penetration and masturbation, Vega said.
When the lawsuit was filed, Vega and seven other altar boys said Silva molested them during his seven years at the Oxnard church. More people kept coming forward. Now, nearly 30 men say they were abused by the priest as boys.
"It was like three hits to my chest," said Enriquez of hearing that the others were coming forward and realizing the way Silva touched him was wrong. "Up to that point, I was Catholic. Then it started turning into anger."
The Ventura County District Attorney's Office filed 25 molestation charges against Silva, but a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the statute of limitations erased the charges against him and other priests accused of molestation. Silva left the archdiocese for Mexico in the 1990s and was later officially removed from church ministry.
Like many of the alleged victims, Vega pushed the memories into his subconscious. He became a Marine, then a recruiter and eventually a police officer. He told no one. He didn't allow himself to acknowledge what happened.
Silva continued to wield strange power over his life. Before Vega got married in 1991, he brought his fiancee to see Silva. He thought the priest could marry them.
"I think he did it for his parents," said Amy Vega, who didn't know about the molestation allegations but had an immediate reaction to the priest. "That was the strangest meeting. ... I wasn't getting married by him. There was no way."
The memories didn't spill out for another 10 years. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Vega watched people jump from the World Trade Center. Sitting in a rocking chair, holding his 1-year-old daughter, his mind jumped from the death on the television screen to the horror in his own life.
"Out came the abuse," he said. "Everything just kind of came out. It was a punch to the gut."
In a home office decorated with his Marine Corps medal of heroism and the American flag from his father-in-law's casket, a cartoon from a newspaper's editorial page highlights a wall. Published immediately after the abuse settlement, it shows Cardinal Mahony with a check over his lips. "Hush money," it says.
Vega said he didn't want to settle but was told he couldn't opt out and needed to go along "for the good of the group." He gave the cartoon to his lawyers, a blunt message that the $660 million would slow the efforts to release church files and show the public exactly what happened.
It did not go over well.
"I was not happy," said Anthony DeMarco, one of Vega's lawyers. But now, DeMarco notes the settlement was reached more than five years ago and the release of records is still being debated. "He has a right to be critical."
The process has been long and complicated. Retired judge Edward Panelli, assigned to oversee the release of records, recused himself a year after the settlement. Archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg said the process was further delayed because the plaintiffs didn't immediately push for the records.
"It wasn't like they were asking the day afterward," he said, referring to the settlement. "They weren't."
Dickran Tevrizian, the retired judge named to replace Panelli, ruled last year that names of church leaders can be redacted from the files, saying the release would serve little purpose but to embarrass the church and litigate a case already settled.
Church representatives and the plaintiffs are still battling over how many records have to be released, with the church contending that only files containing documents directly concerning sexual abuse are encompassed by Tevrizian's order.
It means that instead of files for all priests accused in lawsuits, the church has said it will only release files for 69 priests. Plaintiffs are pushing for the release of more files.
Tamberg knows Vega. They talked outside a courtroom about Vega's business, where he strips the exteriors of pickups, military equipment and planes. When Vega decided he could no longer keep a rosary given to him by Mahony, he drove to the cathedral and gave it to Tamberg.
"I like Manny. I think he's a nice guy," Tamberg said, noting that abuse affects people differently. "Sometimes it casts such a broad shadow over their lives, it affects everything they do. It sort of rules their life. To see Manny work through his experiences to where he is now, from what I can see, it makes me happy."
Tamberg said the cardinal, who retired two years ago at age 75, won't answer questions about any of his meetings with more than 100 victims, including Vega. The conversations are private.
"He has a list of all the names of the victims," Tamberg said. "He prays for them daily."
Vega talks about it often. Just as he met with the cardinal, he wants to meet with Pope Benedict XVI. He wants to tell his story. He wants to tell him the only way the truth will be told is if every name is released.
He's not sure that truth will ever come. He is sure he will never stop fighting for it.
Ray Boucher, Vega's lawyer and the lead attorney for the clergy abuse plaintiffs, said Vega is propelled by the knowledge he's doing the right thing. But Boucher also talked about the acts priests perpetrated on boys who trusted them and the misplaced guilt the victims feel because they didn't report the abuse when they were children.
"Manny knows how dark this is. He's been in that place," said Boucher. "I think he would give his limbs to shed this ugliness, this hole that is in him, and walk away enlightened and enriched with a sense of fulfillment and purpose rather than this burden and duty and darkness."
Amy Vega doesn't see her husband as a man who is trapped. She said he's dealing with what life presented him.
"He doesn't dwell on it," she said. "It's part of who he is. It's his makeup now."
Vega knows his life will never be normal. He doesn't want that. He said he wants truth.
He led a visitor into a garage. There in a drawer, he keeps three plaques. They are awards for being an altar boy. They were given to him by Father Fidencio Silva.
He keeps them in the garage because he doesn't want them inside the house. He keeps them for a reason.
"So I can give them to the pope," he said.