Former Teacher and Sex Abuse Survivor Motivates Archdiocesan “Garden of Healing”

San Fernando Valley Sun [San Fernando CA]

November 29, 2023

By Maria Luisa Torres

About five years ago, Joe Montañez sat in the parking lot of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in Simi Valley, feeling immensely nervous and shaky over what he was about to do. Minutes later he walked into a meeting with representatives of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to reveal “shameful abuse by my predator” – a priest who sexually abused him almost 50 years earlier.

“It’s amazing how many things an abused person goes through, but I wanted to somehow try to get well,” said Montañez, a retired teacher who taught in the San Fernando Valley for over three decades. At that first pivotal meeting, Dr. Heather Banis, coordinator of the archdiocesan office of Victims Assistance Ministry, was there to listen. “[When] I first reached out to Dr. Banis, she took my hand and I cried for about an hour – I couldn’t believe that I was telling my story.”

Today, he is on a journey of emotional healing, and he hopes to help fellow survivors by supporting an archdiocesan garden project dedicated to victims of clergy sexual abuse. 

Montañez was there for the Nov. 19 unveiling of a new “Garden of Healing” – the third of five small gardens being planned, one for each of the five pastoral regions of the LA Archdiocese – in an outdoor courtyard at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Sherman Oaks. Each garden has rose bushes, two commemorative plaques (in English and Spanish) and a water wall fixture “weeping” down – symbolizing tears and renewal.

Since first reaching out to the Archdiocese, Montañez has been experiencing his own renewal by talking about the abuse he’s suffered and having intense therapy paid for by the Archdiocese.  

It’s been five years since he first shared his dream to create a garden for victims, an idea from his own childhood, when as a young boy he sought emotional refuge from the priest’s abuse by tending to his family’s garden.

Montañez, who taught horticulture and landscape design for 36 years – at San Fernando Middle School and Nobel Middle School in Northridge – offered his expertise to the Archdiocese to help design one. 

“As we talked, I learned more about his story and his love for gardens – and how he knew so much about creating gardens and was aware of the power of a space like that as a sacred space,” Banis told the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol. That conversation reminded her of a large healing garden she had seen in the Archdiocese of Chicago. Together, Banis and Montañez discussed creating smaller gardens to span across the large geographic area of the LA Archdiocese.

“Once Joe and I said yes, this is something we’d like to do, I proposed the idea to the Archbishop and the leadership and we talked about how to fund it and where they would be,” she said.

“I’ve had so many dreams over the years of that [altar] boy,” Montañez told the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol about the painful memories of his abuse, which began when he was an 11-year-old altar boy at St. Raphael Catholic Church in Santa Barbara. To this day, he recounted, the face of his now-deceased abuser continues to appear in his dreams.

“These gardens will hopefully help heal,” said Montañez, who currently resides in Pismo Beach. “I hope they will help other people like me out there who haven’t come forward yet.”

He also spoke with Banis about his desire to provide outreach work for fellow survivors, and collaborated with her about his idea to create prayer cards for victims and to more actively share what happened to him.

Use Funds to Support Survivors, Says SNAP

Melanie Sakoda, survivors support director for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said she believes the funds being used for the garden project would be better spent on directly supporting surviving victims of sexual abuse.

“A lot of survivors are in desperate need of money for therapy,” Sakoda told the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol, explaining that “abuse disrupts education, it disrupts career paths.”

“They may prefer money in their pocket as opposed to a survivor garden,” she said. “I think [the Archdiocese] would be better off spending the money toward settling the lawsuits that were filed in this particular window, and putting aside funds to pay for tomorrow’s victims because I don’t think they’ve solved the problem.” 

In 2019, California temporarily lifted the statute of limitations on childhood sex abuse claims against nonprofit organizations, which opened a three-year window to file civil lawsuits through Dec. 31, 2022. Sakoda said that many of those lawsuits are still pending. In addition, a new California law that goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2024, will completely eliminate the statute of limitations for filing lawsuits for child sex abuse that is perpetrated from that date forward.

“I don’t want to denigrate an idea by a survivor, but I think the problem is that most survivors of abuse in the Catholic Church aren’t going to be found in Catholic churches,” said Sakoda. She noted that while the garden project is presented as something being done for all survivors, she said she views it more as a gesture “for this particular survivor, because it’s really not reaching the majority of people who were victimized.”

“It may bring comfort to some people – there are always a handful of Catholic victims who remain as part of the church – but I think that the number of survivors who will actually visit the garden[s] will be few and far between,” said Sakoda. 

Encouraging Victims to Share and Heal

For Montañez, who remains devoted to his Catholic faith, the gardens are about spiritual healing and encouraging other sex abuse victims to open up and share their own stories.

“There [are] so many victims out there that [feel] ashamed and can’t speak up, and can’t enter a church anymore,” explained Montañez. He hopes that creating an outdoor space that acknowledges their abuse might help other victims like himself return to the church.

“At this new garden [in Sherman Oaks], three people came up to me crying, saying they were molested, and they’ve never been able to talk about it before,” he said. “That is so powerful.”

Looking ahead, Montañez is currently on the planning committee for a national healing garden for sex abuse victims that is expected to be dedicated in Washington, D.C. in 2025. He said he is taking “something tragic that happened to me, and trying to make something positive out of it.”

“So many [survivors] have lost their faith,” said Montañez. “For me, if just one person accepts Christ again in their heart, and forgives, then these gardens are worth it.”

The first Garden of Healing was dedicated in October of 2022 at Saint Camillus Center for Spiritual Care in Lincoln Park (San Gabriel region), followed by a garden at Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church in Ventura (Santa Barbara region) in April of this year. The newest garden in Sherman Oaks represents the San Fernando region. The garden locations for the remaining regions – Los Angeles and San Pedro – will be revealed once plans are finalized.