'Altered Boys'
Abused by a Paterson Priest, Deacon As Youths, Three Close Friends Long for Innocence Lost

By Maya Kremen
Herald News (Passaic County, NJ)
May 8, 2005

It's an image the three former altar boys will never forget.

The overweight priest - all 250-plus pounds of him - perches on a motorbike. He tries to start it. He teeters. He falls off.

It made them laugh then, raucous, stomach-clenching laughter.

And it makes them laugh now, 25 years later, sitting in a diner over half-empty plates of food.

Somehow it's still funny, even after everything they say happened to them in the dark rectory of the Paterson cathedral that was their second home.

Albert Vazquez, the smart aleck of the group, and Johnny Vega, the flirt, say that the motorbike-riding priest molested them repeatedly, then doled out rewards their parents would never have been able to afford: new clothes, feasts at diners, a cruise to Nova Scotia.

Vega and Jose Nieves, the stoic football player from Kennedy High, say they were each molested once by a deacon in the same rectory.

Paterson could be a rough place, so acting tough was the norm. And to the boys' parents, devout Catholics and Puerto Rican immigrants, a priest could do no wrong. So they never spoke about what was going on at St. John the Baptist Cathedral, even though they suspected it was happening to their friends as well.

Then, three years ago, the priest sex abuse scandal broke, bringing to light long forgotten cases in New Jersey and throughout the nation. The abuse it uncovered did more than demand church accountability or spur class-action lawsuits. It also revived old relationships, forcing some alleged victims who had been easy friends as children to walk the difficult road toward friendship all over again.

A year ago, Vazquez, Vega and Nieves, now in their 40s, met again at a support group for Latino survivors of priest abuse.

Since then, they have talked about the secret they shared all these years, but they have also caught glimpses of their childhood - the carefree moments that happened in between the dark parts.

The Rev. Jose Alonso, the man Vega and Vazquez say abused them, pleaded guilty to molesting another altar boy and his brother in 1987.

He served four and a half years of a five-year sentence in a state treatment center for sex offenders, and died in 2002. Carlos Guzman, the deacon, was dismissed by the Diocese of Paterson in the 1980s, after separate allegations of abuse surfaced.

In 1993, he served eight months of a nine-month jail sentence for touching and kissing the 8-year-old son of a family friend in Paterson. The diocese does not know where he went or what happened to him, and local law enforcement authorities would not release any information about his whereabouts.

Vazquez, Vega and Nieves never discussed Alonso's and Guzman's convictions.

They grew up, moved out of Paterson, and lost touch the way childhood friends sometimes do. Vazquez married his high school sweetheart, settled in Totowa, and focused on moving onward and upward.

Vega got angry, got some tattoos, then settled down in Wallington with a Polish-American woman who worked with him at Macy's. Nieves spent four years in the Air Force, then took a job as a Franklin Lakes mail carrier and had a son named Isaiah.

Vazquez and Vega saw each other at weddings and christenings. Nieves and Vazquez occasionally ran into each other at Price Club. They would trade a joke and be on their way.

When Vega decided to start a Latino branch of SNAP (Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests) last year, he advertised the meeting in newspapers and on bulletin boards. He half hoped his childhood friends would show up, half dreaded seeing them there. Nieves' brother persuaded him that it would be good for him. Vazquez's wife, Wanda, who knew his secret, said she would go, too.

Shared pain represents gain

On May 2, 2004, in the sparsely decorated karate school where the meeting was held, there were no polite jokes. Emotions ruled. The men hugged, and held on tight. They said, "it happened to me, too," and "you ain't alone no more." Around them, family members, mainly sisters and wives, held their hands, offering silent support.

Vega, the cool, skinny deejay at church dances who always had girls around him, had tears in his eyes when he greeted Nieves. The two men hugged.

It was the first time Nieves had ever seen him cry.

"That's not the Johnny I know, or the Johnny I knew," he said. "We were kids, living our lives as kids. We didn't have stresses, we didn't have worries."

That night may have been a breakthrough. But for men who had thought of themselves as tough, it hasn't been easy to think of themselves as victims.

Vega holds SNAP Latino meetings each month, but Vazquez and Nieves have attended only a few. Over the years, they have developed their own ways of coping: Nieves, 42, plays video games at home in Haledon. Vazquez, 44, who has salt and pepper hair now, busies himself with his work (he's a Verizon store manager) and his garden. He still goes to church, even though his wife and children don't.

"It hurts, and you don't want to remember," said Vazquez. "I'm a victim, but there are other victims out there, too."

Setting aside rage not easy

Vega, 41, has dealt with his past by becoming an example: He has given television interviews, and testified before the state Assembly about a law banning the statute of limitations. In January, he e-mailed Vazquez to ask him to join him for his latest gig: a Univision talk show called Primer Impacto.

As he typed that e-mail, he remembered ugly details. When they were kids, a priest had once referred to Vazquez and Vega as "the stamp and the envelope," because they were so close, and Vega suddenly felt like he wanted to tell his old friend everything.

So he told him that Alonso had penetrated him with his fingers, and admonished him if he cried. "Alonso raped me for six long years and it hurt every time," he wrote. He talked tough about what he would do if he saw Guzman again: "I hate that f'n bastard with all my heart. It scares me just thinking what would happen if I saw him."

But he also surrendered some of his pride, telling Vazquez that as a kid, he was afraid to talk to his friend because "you and your cousins were so intimidating at times I could just not work the nerve to tell you."

Vazquez's response a few hours later surprised Vega. Tears sprang to his eyes as he read it.

"I am very proud for what you were doing and I wish we had the strength back then to address this issue and help stop the pain and abuse others suffered after us!" Vazquez wrote back. He told Vega "our door is always open" and invited him and Bernadette to dinner: "Please let me know what Sunday is good for you guys!"

They started meeting occasionally. They talked about things other than St. John's, like jobs and kids. They know they couldn't have been responsible for what happened, yet they still wonder what would have happened if one of them had said something.

Safe haven with a dark side

In the 1980s, the cathedral was a zone that was parent-approved but had few rules. The boys would raid the pantry for snacks, or hang out in the rectory's living room, which was carpeted and had a television.

On weekends, they would sometimes sleep over in that living room, which was adjacent to Alonso's bedroom. Before they went to bed, the men said, the big priest would call the name of the boy that would sleep with him that night. Vega said that when it was his turn, Alonso would whisper in his ear that his parents would be harmed if he told them what was going on.

The next day, the men said, they would block out what had happened the night before. As they got older, they tried to avoid the priests by driving around late at night in the yellow church van.

Being open about what happened helps to heal the wound, said Vazquez. But, he said, "it hurts at the same time to think that we knew what was going on but didn't say anything."

The men say they each have their own problems they attribute to the abuse: Nieves has had a hard time maintaining a steady relationship with a woman. Vega can't sleep sometimes. Vazquez, who says his abuse went on the longest, nine years, from age 8 to 17, shies away from hugging his own son.

"They should call us 'altered boys,' not altar boys," he said, darkly, one night.

Still, sometimes between the bad there's good. Meeting each other again has helped the men remember that, too.

One afternoon, they sat around Vazquez's dining table, swigging Coronas, remembering how once, after football practice, Vega and Nieves polished off an entire box of Lucky Charms. How so-and-so's sister went to the junior prom with so-and-so's brother-in-law. They flipped through old photos of first communions and sweet sixteens and laughed - they all had bushy Afros then.

"We had hair," noted Vega, who is balding, but keeps his head clean-shaven.

Another night, Vazquez remembered a time he and Vega slashed the church van's tires with screwdrivers - a cockeyed attempt at revenge. Vazquez was 18, Vega was 16. It was just one in a series of pranks they pulled after the priests had gone to bed.

"You'd be in juvvie, I'd be in jail if they saw us," Vazquez said. Vega turned to him, grabbed his shoulder. The men laughed together.

Memories a haunting reminder

Of the three, Vazquez is least eager to think about his past, and most concerned about his future: His new beach house in South Carolina, his job, the fate of his children. When Vega asked him to join 27 alleged priest-abuse victims in a class-action lawsuit against the Diocese of Paterson, he refused, preferring not to dredge up the past.

The other two have had a harder time. In his 20s, Vega made several suicide attempts. He has his ups and downs with Bernadette, though lately their relationship has been improving. When the lawsuit settled for $5 million in February, he used a portion of his money, the amount of which he wouldn't disclose, to buy her a heart-shaped diamond ring for their 11th wedding anniversary.

Nieves is thinking of setting aside the $66,000 he got from the lawsuit to buy a house. He plans to buy camping equipment so that he and Isaiah, 7, can go away together on weekends. He wants to get into therapy, because he has bouts of anger. He doesn't know if it's stored up rage at his father, who he says used to hit him, or because of the night in the rectory. Either way, he wants it to end.

As a kid, Nieves never truly felt part of Albert and Johnny's tightknit clique. They were the stamp and the envelope. He was just Jose from the Grand Street projects, the guy that they called "Cano"- white-haired- because he used to have light hair. But none of that matters any more.

"They know something about me that no one really knows and I know that about them," he said. "If they ever need anything, I'm there."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.