by priest too good to be true
An unwanted name, a life not of his choosing
By Claudia Rowe
[See also the
main article in this series on accusations against "Fathers who acted
as fathers", as well as profiles
of the 11 priests examined, maps and photos of the Washington
church properties where abuse is alleged with synopses of the charges,
and an in-depth report on another priest, Rev.
Edward T. Olszewski.]
Every time he wrote "Mitchell," it reminded him of the day that the Rev. James Mitchell arrived in his rural mountain village in Colombia -- half a day's walk from the nearest road -- with offers of a way out of poverty, an escape from violence. And, he says, it reminded him of what happened afterward: five years of sexual abuse under the guise of a caring, adoptive father.
Ariza has detailed his charges in a lawsuit, filed in May against Mitchell and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle.
In 1982, Ariza badly needed help. He was 17 years old, and terrified. The priest's arrival in town coincided with his own homecoming from the hospital, where he'd been treated for a bullet wound to the chest. The guerrilla fighters who shot him had already killed his father and sister.
Although he had known the priest for less than a day, Mitchell's suggestion that Ariza leave home and enroll -- for free -- at the priest's school, El Camino, sounded like a godsend.
Almost immediately, Ariza said, Mitchell treated his newest student differently from the rest. At the school near Barbosa, a day's journey from home, he got special food and made private trips into town with the priest. Mitchell told him to consider himself a son, and within weeks, Ariza said, he was sleeping in the man's bed.
"There are so many things that come to your mind -- you don't know what is right and what is wrong," he said in an interview. "He was like my father."
About a year later, the priest offered to make it official.
"He said, 'I can adopt you and bring you to the United States,' " Ariza recalled. " 'You will be my son.' "
They traveled to the U.S. Consulate in Bogota -- to obtain adoption papers, Ariza thought, although what they got turned out to be merely a tourist visa. It was enough to get both men across the border and into California, where, Ariza said, the priest obtained a new birth certificate for him -- with a birth date showing the boy as 16, although he was actually two years older.
"He told me, 'This is the name you're going to be using -- Mitchell,' " Ariza recalled. "He told me the papers are going through, and you are my adopted son. He even gave me his name as my middle name, Ariel James Mitchell. But I was using a name that wasn't mine and claiming that I was born in the United States when I wasn't, so I had a bad feeling."
In 1984, they arrived at Mitchell's new assignment, St. John's Parish in Vancouver, Wash., where the priest had been specially hired to reach out to Spanish speakers. Another teenager from El Camino, whom Mitchell had also offered to adopt, was living there, too, Ariza said.
Together, the three set up house, the boys working in the priest's garden during the day and spending alternate nights in his bed, Ariza said.
"I was scared. First, he said he was going to be my father and take the role of my father, who had just been killed, then he was saying, 'I know you're scared but this is normal. This is what two men should do,'" Ariza said. "He'd threaten to send me back to Colombia if I disobeyed. That was the main threat."
The other boy, reached recently in Oregon, said the priest never harmed him.
Others at St. John's wondered about the new priest's unusual living arrangement. It didn't look right to the Rev. Michael O'Brien, the pastor, but when he learned about Ariza's past -- a father killed by guerillas, a boy rescued from poverty -- he put his misgivings about Mitchell aside.
"Because of the story that he'd actually adopted the boys and they'd come from situations where they were in danger for their lives, it seemed like a noble thing," O'Brien said.
O'Brien said he had a harder time ignoring signs of a drinking problem in Mitchell. He asked Ariza about it one afternoon as they strolled in a nearby park. What, exactly, went on in Mitchell's home, the elder priest asked. How were the boys getting on?
Ariza unloaded, telling all about the promised adoption that had never materialized and the nights of sexual abuse at El Camino. Ariza said he reported that the molestations continued at St. John's, although O'Brien recalls only allegations about Colombia.
O'Brien notified church authorities and, within weeks, Mitchell was summoned to Seattle, sent away for alcoholism treatment and, by 1987, had been removed from the archdiocese. Ariza never saw him again.
Ariza's attorney, Mary Fleck, believes that the church did too little, too late.
"The emphasis was to take care of the priest, not the child," she said. "There should have been supervision of this priest much earlier to find out what was he doing with the boys when he brought them here from another country. If they had looked into his behavior in Colombia, they would have known there were problems, and if they had paid attention to what was going on in Vancouver, they would have reacted a lot sooner."
Greg Magnoni, a spokesman for the Seattle Archdiocese, explained that Mitchell, who was ordained in Colombia, was operating here essentially as a freelancer and, as such, would have been subject to less rigorous oversight.
"He really was not one of ours, so there wouldn't be the same personnel record as there would be for one of our diocesan priests," Magnoni said. "We've made mistakes and apologized for those mistakes, but that's unfortunately not a sufficient response from the perspective of the victims. We recognize that."
Mitchell was gone from Ariza's life, but his problems were far from over. No one from the church helped him find a new place to live, he said, although a local family took him in. He supported himself with a series of odd jobs and eventually enrolled at Highline Community College in Des Moines.
Only years later, when attempting to transfer to the University of Washington, was Ariza contacted by federal immigration agents and informed that the papers he'd presented affirming his identity -- the ones that Mitchell had provided from California -- were falsified. His marriage to an American secured his status here in the early 1990s, but he continues to wrestle with questions of identity.
Mitchell has not responded to requests for comment.
Under the circumstances of his removal from ministry here, Magnoni said, the priest's prospects for serving in another diocese would be severely limited.
Nevertheless, a 2002 report in The Spokesman-Review in Spokane showed Mitchell in ceremonial garb, baptizing a Spanish-speaking family in his Pullman home. When informed last week, Spokane church officials reacted with surprise.
"He does not have any permission to function as a priest in the Diocese of Spokane," said Steven Dublinski, the vicar general there. "I know he's down in Pullman, but he does not function as a priest here in any way. We'll look into it."
Mitchell currently lives with two other young men from El Camino. Only one, Adelmo Leon, agreed to speak with a reporter, and he staunchly defended the priest.
In an interview, Leon recalled the day Father Mitchell arrived in his rural Colombian village, seven hours' walk from the nearest road, just as he had with Ariza. Throughout his nine subsequent years with the cleric -- beginning at age 16 -- Leon said, Mitchell had never made an inappropriate move. Ariza's sexual abuse charges are baseless, he insists.
"I'm 100 percent sure of it," he said. "I've been living with Father Mitchell since 1996, and I know him very well. He is doing such good things for so many people."
The priest's presence undoubtedly has been life-changing for Leon. Mitchell helped his student win a scholarship to Washington State University and put Leon up in his spacious home, where wall-to-wall carpeting pads his every footstep. On a recent Friday evening, the young man looked around at his new American life and smiled contentedly.
"I never could have achieved anything like this without Father Mitchell," he said.
Yesterday, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that dozens of clerics across the country who were accused of molesting minors lived with children, often serving as legal parents or guardians. Among them were four priests in Washington, who were later removed from the ministry for sexual abuse. Today, two Seattle-area men describe abuse inflicted when they were children living with priests.
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