7 Young Men Look to 'Our Day in Court'

By Stephanie Innes
Arizona Daily Star
July 11, 2004

YUMA - The photos show young brothers, beaming with pride in their Sunday best as they celebrate a relative's first holy communion. In other pictures, the little boys wear altar robes and serious faces as they process through their church during Mass.

But the photos, most of them from the 1990s, tell only a fraction of what the brothers - now young men - describe as an excruciating period of their lives.

There's been no compensation for seven young men - including the Rodriguez brothers from the photos - who say the Rev. Juan Guillen, a former associate pastor at Immaculate Conception Church here, repeatedly seduced and raped them. Guillen, who ministered primarily to Spanish-speaking parishioners, is in state prison serving a 10-year sentence for sexual misconduct with minors.

Between them, the seven young men - three sets of brothers who are all children of Mexican farmworkers - have filed four civil actions against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson, the first of which is scheduled to go to trial in September. But the diocese is considering filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and for the Yuma families who say they were victimized by Guillen that could mean a delay in cases that have left them feeling ashamed and stigmatized in a community of devout Catholics.

"These Yuma cases are extremely strong and solid. It's undisputed they were molested and they are acts of molestation of the worst nature," said Jerrold F. Shelley, a Yuma attorney who is representing the young men as a co-counsel with Tucson lawyers Lynne M. Cadigan and Kim E. Williamson. "The church was a mainstay in their lives, their families were extremely devout and now these kids have lost their spirituality, their childhood and their community."

Case broke in 2002

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson stretches over nine counties, including Yuma, and oversees some 350,000 Catholics. Diocese officials say they are considering bankruptcy as a way of ensuring all victims of sexual abuse are fairly compensated. Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas said he has tried to negotiate a financial settlement, but so far the two sides cannot agree on a dollar figure and neither side is saying exactly how much money is at stake.

"I'm worried but I'm hopeful. I've already told the bishop that the one thing I want is our day in court," said 24-year-old Juan Hernandez, the oldest of the seven plaintiffs and the only one whose case was not filed in Yuma County Superior Court. Hernandez filed his civil action in California because his lawyers say that's where much of the abuse occurred, though the Diocese of Tucson is named as a defendant.

Hernandez, who is working as a law clerk in California and hoping to go to law school, first brought the Guillen case to the attention of authorities in August 2002 by telling a diocesan official, who then filed a report with the Yuma Police Department. Hernandez was able to prove his claims to police after obtaining a confession from the priest through a taped confrontation call, and Guillen was arrested that same week.

All the brothers are from families that moved to Yuma from Mexico, knowing no one. Their lives revolved around the church, which they attended nearly every day.

"At that age you don't know what is going on. We never talked about sex. I mean, think back to when you were 8," said Hernandez. He said his mother has struggled perhaps the most from the news about the man they called Father Juan.

Ice cream, trips to Disneyland

According to Yuma Police Department records, Hernandez was first abused by Guillen in 1988, when he was 8 years old. Yuma police reports say the abuse continued for nine years, including a period when Hernandez was repeatedly abused in a trailer Guillen owned.

"We were already raped physically and morally, and I feel the justice system in this country is not going to let us get raped again. The jury will see who the bad people are," Hernandez said.

Guillen was eventually charged with 12 felonies accusing him of molesting young boys whom police say he brought to his trailer and plied with frozen ice cream bars and Nintendo games. Sometimes he took the boys on trips to Disneyland. The 60-year-old priest was convicted last year and sent to prison for two counts of attempted child molestation after reaching a plea agreement with the state. The diocese suspended Guillen and is now attempting to defrock or "laicize" him through a process that must go through the Vatican. His removal can't come quickly enough for the boys who say Guillen betrayed them.

But had it not been for Hernandez's younger brother, the abuse by Guillen, who ministered in Yuma for 20 years, may have never been known.

Hernandez came forward two years ago after his younger brother began exhibiting signs of trouble that puzzled his parents and school counselor - the teen asked the counselor to send him to a psychiatrist, refusing to give an explanation, and on another occasion was discovered alone and crying in a school stairwell, again refusing to give a reason. His older brother immediately suspected the cause.

"I had thought I was the only one who was molested," Hernandez said. "It still wasn't an easy decision to come forward. My family and I, we thought about it for three months. I was studying for finals in college, so we waited. But I wanted justice for my brother."

After Hernandez came forward, Yuma police heard another claim from a then-13-year-old boy, also the son of Mexican farmworkers, who said he had been molested by Guillen as recently as that summer. That boy's two brothers later reported they, too, were molested by Guillen. The Rodriguez brothers' lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial in Yuma in September - their mother is seriously ill with liver disease and Shelley said that's why their case will be the first of the three Yuma suits to go to trial. A third set of two brothers came forward with claims of molestation after Guillen had been convicted.

All seven of the young men report nightmares and difficulty sleeping. Shelley said one of the young men is suicidal. Hernandez, the only one of the young men willing to go public with his full name, says he is angry.

"My mother I think is still in shock. She is still a faithful Catholic but I am not," Hernandez said. "My general feeling is disgust."

Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at 573-4134 or

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