Trial begins in sex-abuse claim against Yakima diocese
By Donald W. Meyers
March 11, 2014
YAKIMA, Wash. — Missing records, disputed accounts of an event 15 years ago and its aftereffects all surfaced Monday on the opening day of hearings in a $3 million lawsuit by a man who said he was raped by a deacon with the Catholic Diocese of Yakima.
In opening arguments in U.S. District Court, attorney Bryan D. Smith said his client had been a teenager with a promising academic and athletic future before reporting he’d been raped by church deacon Aaron Ramirez in a trailer on the grounds of Zillah’s Resurrection Catholic Church.
Smith said the man, identified in court records as John Doe, was 17 years old and had overcome childhood physical and sexual abuse, was a star wrestler, a cross-country runner and second in command of his high school’s junior ROTC.
But Smith said the 1999 incident started a downward spiral into addiction as the young man lost interest in school and athletics, became suicidal and was later discharged from Marine Corps boot camp for medical reasons.
Doe’s lawsuit maintains that church officials failed to properly supervise the deacon or adequately check his background, which would have revealed a negative recommendation from a religious order in Mexico.
Diocese attorney Ted Buck called Doe’s account of the incident inconsistent, with different versions given to police, his foster family and a social worker. He also questioned how Doe, who said he was raped after Ramirez plied him with beer and sacramental wine until he was sick, could report an attack with clarity.
Buck said records will show that Doe was “moving on” after reporting the rape. He had his best year in school and competed in the state wrestling tournament. The problems only began later after he impregnated his foster parents’ daughter and could not get jobs working with youth because he had sexually abused his siblings as a child, Buck said.
Arguments also centered on what the diocese knew or should have known about Ramirez before he applied for training to become a priest.
Buck said diocese officials would never have approved Ramirez for the training had Mexican church officials told them he was unfit.
However, the diocese has been unable to find the paperwork from Mexico that it says cleared Ramirez to begin studying for the priesthood.
“Believe me, we wish we knew where the files were,” Buck told the court. He blamed the lack of records on clerical problems in the diocese, with files scattered over different locations.
In testimony Monday, Monsignor John Ecker, who was responsible for recruiting potential priests in the 1990s, said the policy on personnel files varied over the years, with dioceses ordered by the Vatican to throw out the files in the name of privacy at some times and keep them at others. He could not recall which order was in place at the time Ramirez was in Yakima.
But Ecker reiterated that someone could not be admitted to the priesthood unless they had a “clean bill of health” — recommendations from their seminary or religious order, academic records and a psychological examination.
A letter written in 2000 from the diocese to the Vatican asking that Ramirez be removed from clergy noted that Ecker had reviewed all Ramirez’s paperwork prior to starting at the diocese and there was nothing out of order.
Buck also challenged the claim that the church was supposed to supervise Ramirez, who was then a 34-year-old seminary graduate, considerably older than the other seminarians in the diocese.
After Doe reported he’d been raped, Ramirez fled to Mexico and is believed to have never returned to the United States.
Buck said that former Bishop Carlos Sevilla did not tell Ramirez to stay in Mexico, as Doe’s attorneys say, but honestly answered his question about what would happen if he were to try to come back to the diocese.
He said Sevilla was approaching the issue from trying to protect youth from Ramirez, as well as serving as a spiritual adviser helping someone find forgiveness for their sins.
“(Sevilla) was not a policeman. He was not a judge,” Buck said. “He was a bishop in the Catholic Church that teaches forgiveness.”
It is the first time that the diocese has gone to trial over alleged sexual abuse by a member of the clergy.