"It's As If No One Wants to Face What Happened," One Father Said
Church, Families Deal with Child Sex Abuse by Priests

By Marita Hernandez and John Dart
Los Angeles Times
June 20, 1988

Several months have passed since scandal rocked the small Eastside Catholic parish. "Father Nick," the fugitive priest charged with sexually molesting at least 10 altar boys at the church and at another parish, is seldom mentioned.

At Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, nestled in the foothills of predominantly Latino El Sereno, parishioners still fill Sunday Masses celebrated in Spanish, and a new roster of altar boys assists at the services.

Parish life has returned to normal, both at Guadalupe and at the second church, St. Agatha's, a heavily Latino parish in South-Central Los Angeles.

Have Not Forgotten

Only the families most directly affected still struggle for normalcy. They haven't forgotten Father Nicolas Aguilar Rivera. They trusted the visiting priest from Mexico with their children and even welcomed him into their homes. Now they worry about the effect of the alleged molestation on the boys.

Some parents have been criticized by fellow parishioners who have accused them of blowing the situation out of proportion. There have been insinuations that the boys may have lied about what happened.

Police investigators said 26 boys were molested by the priest. The district attorney's office filed formal charges against him in 10 of the cases.

Church leaders have minimized the problem, some parents say, and have not done enough to prevent a recurrence. "It's as if no one wants to face what happened," the father of two of the alleged victims said.

In the aftermath of the incident, which also has raised questions by police about the church's handling of the case, the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese has improved procedures for reporting molestation cases to authorities.

Low-Keyed Response

Otherwise, little has changed. Archdiocesan leaders say it is best to handle such matters quietly, both for the sake of the families involved and to avoid making more of the problem than exists.

"My greatest concerns are priests (in general), not this very tiny, tiny percentage involved in any difficulty like this," said Los Angeles Archbishop Roger M. Mahony in an interview. He described the 1,316 diocesan, religious order and visiting priests here as "upstanding, dedicated, committed men." He said priests who experience difficulties are commonly beset by other problems such as stress, burnout, depression and alcoholism.

Mahony noted that in the last decade, fewer than one priest per year in the archdiocese has been accused of child molestation. Four priests and one religious order brother have been criminally charged or had civil lawsuits filed against them. In three or four other cases, the priests denied the accusations and no formal charges were made.

At the same time, Mahony said that, in addition to the archdiocese's customary psychological screening of candidates for its seminary, he has sought -- by removing stigmas associated with therapy -- to encourage troubled priests to seek counseling.

Nevertheless, the archdiocese is faced with a complication in that the majority of priests -- those from religious orders and those visiting from other areas -- serve here on the recommendation of their superiors and are not screened by archdiocesan psychologists.

In recent years, as reports of child molestation spread across all segments of U.S. society and public attention grew accordingly, the church has found itself no more immune to the problem than other trusted institutions.

Numerous lawsuits throughout the country have charged that the church has ignored and tried to cover up the problem, in some instances failing to notify authorities, transferring molesting priests to other parishes and ignoring parental complaints. For the first time, a statement on behalf of U.S. Catholic bishops was issued this year expressing their concern over pedophilia, the abnormal sexual desire of adults for children.

While the archdiocese has no written policy for dealing with the problem of child-molesting priests, Mahony said that the church's practice is "to respond to hurting people as best we can and as quickly as we can."

This usually involves immediately removing a priest from an assignment involving children and offering psychological services to the priest and to the victims.

In the Aguilar case, church officials confronted the priest with the accusations and removed him from his duties on a weekend -- two days before contacting police authorities. Police investigators criticized the church for the delay, which they said allowed the priest to evade arrest. Church officials countered that the police phone number they had been given for reporting such incidents was not operating on weekends.

Flight to Mexico

Aguilar, who served a few months at Guadalupe parish and six months at St. Agatha's, fled in January when he was confronted with the accusations. Aguilar is believed to have gone into hiding in Mexico, where authorities will be asked for assistance in tracking down the priest, said Detective Gary Lyon of the Los Angeles Police Department's Juvenile Division, who investigated the case.

Upon his return to Mexico, the priest stopped to visit his former bishop in Tehuacan in the state of Puebla, who said that Aguilar resigned his priestly duties without explanation and left.

Subsequent discussions between church and police representatives have resulted in a new list of phone numbers -- including some that operate around the clock and on weekends -- provided to all church facilities in the archdiocese, Mahony said.

Mahony said the archdiocese hopes to discover potential problems before they surface.

Psychologist Joseph Nicolosi of St. Thomas Aquinas Psychological Clinic in Encino, does the preliminary screening of applicants to St. John's College and Seminary in Camarillo, the training center for archdiocesan priests.

Directed to Therapy

From applicants' responses to questions about celibacy and sexual orientation, Nicolosi said he recommends that about 20% of them receive some psychotherapy for various reasons, not all sex-related.

Mahony said the church does not ask would-be seminarians if they have a sexual fascination with children; indeed, he said that psychologists tell him there are no questions that can detect a possible offender. Psychiatrist Morris Paulson of UCLA's Family Support Program said that some offenders who fondle or sexually abuse children tend to rationalize their behavior and deny they have a serious, recurring problem.

In the 10 years he has been screening seminary candidates and counseling priests, Nicolosi said the archdiocese has lately given speedier attention to requests for therapy on a whole range of problems.

"I think the atmosphere has changed from the former administration (of Cardinal Timothy Manning)," Nicolosi said. "A priest can feel free to have professional help and have the archdiocese pay for the psychotherapy."

"There is no stigma attached to counseling," Mahony said.

Seldom Discussed

Still, the issue of child molestation is seldom discussed in the archdiocese. Mahony last raised the matter with Los Angeles priests at a retreat two years ago. "An attorney, a psychiatrist and I talked about all this. It was very well received. We don't have anything ongoing beyond that for priests," he said, asserting that fewer than 1% of priests' problems in counseling are sexual.

The news weekly National Catholic Reporter said there have been at least 135 cases of sexual molestation reported from 1983 to 1986. The total through this year of cases involving priests who have been sued or charged with alleged child molestation may be climbing as high as 200 nationwide, said Father Thomas P. Doyle of Silver Spring, Md., one of the authors of a 1985 report to U.S. bishops on the situation. There are 57,000 Catholic priests in the United States.

In response to press reports on priests afflicted with pedophilia, Mark Chopko, general counsel for the U.S. Catholic bishops, issued a Feb. 9 statement saying the bishops were "deeply committed to addressing such problems positively, to making strong efforts to prevent child abuse, to repairing whatever damage has been done and to bringing the healing ministry of the church to bear wherever possible."

One of the first frank treatments of the subject publicly by a major diocese may have been that of the Seattle archdiocese, which had to deal with recent allegations against priests. A letter from Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen was read May 29 in western Washington parishes expressing the desire to "create a new atmosphere based on education and dialogue, so that the problem of abuse and exploitation will become a distant chapter in our past."

Any person "who has been victimized by a priest in the archdiocese" was invited to contact the archdiocese's chancellor or a pastor, according to the archdiocesan newspaper.

Limited Knowledge

In Los Angeles and other areas, a Catholic diocese may have limited background knowledge on more than half of the priests serving within its borders. In the Los Angeles archdiocese, for instance, 456 are "diocesan priests" (educated and assigned by the archdiocese), 676 are on assignment from about 50 different religious orders and 184 are visiting from other jurisdictions.

Only one of four priests sentenced, charged or sued in sexual molestation cases during the 1980s in the Los Angeles archdiocese was a diocesan priest -- Father Donald P. Roemer, who was sentenced to a state hospital in 1981 and placed on 10 years' probation in 1983.

"A priest cannot knock on the door and just be assigned," said Mahony. He said a full explanation for coming to the archdiocese is required from a visiting priest's former bishop. With religious orders, Msgr. Thomas Curry, archdiocesan vicar for the clergy, said, "We presume that they have checked the person out and that there are no problems."

A lawsuit filed last month against the archdiocese involves a Dominican order brother and priest, both accused of sexually abusing a former altar boy at St. Dominic's Church in Eagle Rock between 1983 and 1986. The suit alleges that the men separately gave the youth illegal drugs and forced him to have sex with each of them.

"The Dominicans were totally unaware of any problems" when they were assigned to the parish, Mahony said.

Recalls Suspension

Father John Flannery, the Oakland-based administrator of the Dominicans' western province, said in a statement last week that he suspended the priest, Father Cristobal Garcia, in November, 1985, well before the recent allegations were made public.

Flannery's statement, issued through Ron Larson, the province's attorney, said that Garcia refused to cooperate with Flannery's inquiry and left for his home in the Philippines "and separated himself from the provincial's control." Garcia was officially removed from the order in June, 1986, but he was later accepted by the Archbishop of Cebu to serve there, Larson said.

The Cebu archdiocese was advised of the allegations, Larson said, but because Garcia is no longer a Dominican, the order has had no further contact with the priest or his new superiors.

The lawsuit also names Brother Juan Macias, who left St. Dominic parish in 1986, before the allegations against him surfaced. "We are hearing those charges (against him) for the first time," Larson said. He said Macias has been abroad and has been summoned to the Oakland provincial's office.

In another case involving a religious order priest, Father John A. Salazar, 31, a Piarist Father who taught at Santa Teresita School in the City Terrace area, in August pleaded guilty to two felony counts of molesting boys, ages 13 and 14, and was sentenced to six years in prison.

Issues of Lawsuits

A suit is still pending in that case, and it has raised issues that have become almost commonplace in such lawsuits against the church.

Parents of the 13-year-old said in the suit that their son complained twice to his teacher and once to his principal about the molestations, but that both failed to notify authorities and allowed the priest to continue teaching and celebrating Mass. The parents said it was not until another student complained that church officials forced Salazar to turn himself into law enforcement authorities.

At Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. Agatha's parishes, most of the eight families interviewed for this story expressed varying degrees of dissatisfaction with the church's response to the Aguilar incident. Many said they were disappointed that their church did not do more to alert parishioners of the problem. Although a recent community meeting was held at one of the parishes to discuss child sexual abuse with an archdiocesan-appointed psychologist, some of the affected families said they did not attend out of fear of publicly identifying their children.

Doyle, the U.S. bishops' adviser on the subject, said that most dioceses direct their education programs to priests, not to people in the parishes.

Alert to Priests

"I believe this is probably the best way to go," Doyle said. "It alerts priests to what the nature of the problem is and may reduce the sensationalism. It creates an atmosphere of compassion among the priests so there is an understanding that this is a disorder and not a moral failing."

A couple from St. Agatha's complained early on that their parish pastor first explained Aguilar's sudden absence to his congregation as a "family emergency."

The first official communication from church officials came nearly two months later in the form of a vaguely worded letter from Mahony, which was read at Sunday Masses and expressed his concern over the matter. Several parents, however, said that the letter was so abstruse that no one but those who already knew about the allegations could have understood its message.

Mahony later sent a second letter to each of the affected families, offering them free counseling services.

"They should tell the whole parish about what happened so that people are more alert and parents can take greater precautions. Maybe that way we can prevent something like this from happening again," one mother said. Like the other parents, she spoke only on condition that her name not be used.

"My husband says he'll never trust anyone again," one of the parents said. "What happened has also destroyed our children's trust. Our 10-year-old wanted to be a priest but now he won't even go near one."

Some Are Satisfied

A few of the parents, as well as other parishioners, however, say they are satisfied with the church's handling of the matter.

"I think there's been plenty of publicity in the papers and on the news about what happened. People have opened their eyes to it," said Lila Campos, a leader at Guadalupe parish. "People have gotten over it."

While several of the affected parents suggested that the church provide greater information on the problem of child-molesting priests through sermons, children's plays and community meetings, Mahony maintains that there is also danger in focusing too much attention on the problem.

"Our professional staff, especially our psychologists, have always cautioned against overreacting," he said. He has been advised that developing programs for children that focus on the problem can be counter-effective, he said.


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