Officer Battles Personal Crime
He Can't Forget Molestation by His Priest

By Tom Kisken
Ventura County Star [Los Angeles CA]
April 27, 2003

Manuel Vega has spent Holy Week sitting in his own stink in protest at a Los Angeles cathedral. He has sued a Catholic priest for molestation. He's started a victims' support group. He's told and retold details of the most horrible moments of his childhood -- in front of television cameras, state legislators and anyone who will listen.

And the question he doesn't know how to answer, the one that can make this Oxnard police officer and Marine hero cry, is: "How much is enough?"

"I've asked myself the same thing," he said Monday, a day after ending his fast and vigil outside the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. "I've asked God the same thing."

Vega alleges the Rev. Fidencio Silva molested him about 10 times beginning when he was in the sixth grade and an altar boy at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Oxnard's La Colonia.

Silva, who denied the accusations of Vega and others when confronted by a television news reporter several months ago, is now being sought by the Ventura County District Attorney's Office on 25 counts of molestation. He was believed to have been in Mexico, though prosecutors have heard an unconfirmed report he has relocated.

Vega and seven other former altar boys filed a class-action lawsuit in July against Silva, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and others. At a press conference announcing the action, Vega stepped up to a microphone-studded podium, identified himself by name and offered up a resume that included being named Oxnard's officer of the year and winner of the prestigious Navy and Marine Corps Medal for heroism. And then he told of how Silva used religion to gain his trust and then shattered it.

"Physically they didn't kill me," Vega says now of the priest and the leadership of the Catholic Church that he blames even more. "Spiritually, they did."

Since that splash-landing into public seas, this 36-year-old father and husband has traveled to Sacramento more times than he remembers to lobby for legislation that eventually revised the statute of limitations on molestation lawsuits. He sat with Marc Klaas, whose daughter Polly was abducted and murdered, at a victims' rights round table. He has given out his cell phone number to journalists attracted not only by Vega's experiences as a victim but also his standing as a role model and protector of public safety.

His isn't the only face representing victims of a crime steeped in stigma and shame, but it has become one of the most prominent and memorable.

"Simply because of his stature as a vet and an officer, he cuts across the image the average person has of people who were sexually victimized by priests," said state Sen. Joe Dunn, D-Santa Ana. He worked with Vega on a statute of limitations moratorium that expands the ability of molestation victims to file lawsuits.

"I'm not sure the bill would have had success without the presence of Manny Vega," he said.

Matching victims with names, vocations and personalities makes it harder for people to marginalize molestation, said Mary Grant, regional director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests.

"They begin to see the people who have been abused by clergy are all kinds of people," she said. "It could be their neighbor. It could be their family member. It could be their police officer."

Taking a stand

Not everyone has rushed to embrace Vega for his courage and persistence. He felt almost transparent upon arriving at his vigil site outside the 7-month-old cathedral on Palm Sunday. He was armed with a sleeping bag and picket signs with sayings like "You Can't Hide the Truth From God." The only people who would look at him had venom in their eyes. An usher yelled, "How dare you come and do this on a holy day."

Vega got the idea for the vigil as he sat with about a half-dozen people in the victims' support group he started in West Ventura County. They swapped stories of their pain and railed against Catholic authorities for not doing enough. He thought of how people would be celebrating the spiritual rebirth of Easter at a new, $190 million cathedral. He decided it was important to remind them of the stain of clergy abuse.

He thinks his point was validated by the woman who approached him that first day.

"She said 'You're a shame and an embarrassment,' " Vega said, remembering she stopped him before he could protest. "That's what they need. They need to be shamed and embarrassed."

Vega was there, camped on Temple Street, until mid-morning Easter Sunday accompanied by a former member of Silva's religious order and a changing band of victims and supporters, including Vega's parents. A woman presented him flowers in an In-N-Out cup. Several people told Vega of how a priest molested them; at least one said it was the first time he had told the story.

"People were coming because I inspired them. I didn't plan on inspiring anyone," Vega said, thinking of the man from New York who learned of the vigil on the news and flew out to be a part of it. "I said 'Dude, you're crazy.' He said, 'You're crazy.' "

One night, it rained so hard Vega insisted an older protester spend the night in his van. Vega didn't shave, shower or eat the entire week and admits his odor was definitely not spiritual. At times, his body shook from lack of food.

Every morning, a priest wearing glasses asked how he was doing. It was Cardinal Roger Mahony, who became leader of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 1985, after Vega alleges he was molested by Silva. Still he is a target of frustration for Vega, who believes the cardinal has helped cover up molestation accusations against priests and has stonewalled criminal prosecution by withholding personnel records.

Archdiocese officials say there has been no cover-up and assert they're acting vigilantly to bring criminals to justice and protect children from clergy abuse.

Those issues didn't surface in the morning chats. Vega and the cardinal talked mostly about superficial things, though the cardinal said he was sorry for what had happened to Vega and was praying for him. Vega asked for a private meeting and was told it couldn't happen because of all the legal issues involved.

Mahony offered the protesters the use of the cathedral restroom and other facilities. He offered rosary beads from the pope. Vega accepted the gift but now wishes he hadn't. It made him feel like he was being bought off.

He's not sure what to make of their conversations. He's not sure there was any tangible gain but still thinks something important happened. The only way he can explain is with metaphors.

"I sat on the sidewalk throwing pebbles at the wall," he said. "While I may not have broken down the gates or scaled the wall, I broke a couple of windows, and one of those was Mahony's and he looked out."

The cardinal was unavailable following Holy Week but regardless wouldn't have commented on his talks with Vega, said archdiocesan spokesman Tod Tamberg. He would have classified them as pastoral conversations.

Tamberg talked to Vega several times as well outside the cathedral. They obviously don't agree on characterizations of the archdiocese's dealings with clergy abuse. But Tamberg also thinks maybe something was gained from the vigil.

"Right now with all of the legal considerations and the legal processes and the mediation efforts under way, there are some limits on how much, frankly, both sides can say to one another," he said. "But once the lawyers are gone, the financial issues have been adjudicated, there has to be a reaching out between both sides for healing."

And that, Tamberg suggested, might have begun on Temple Street. Vega isn't as optimistic.

"I don't think there will be a complete healing because this is a wound that has been left open, that has been oozing and is painful," he said.

An offer to "help"

Vega's father was a bracero -- a field worker brought to the United States by the government. He worked all over the country before raising his family in La Colonia -- a low-income community Vega described by noting the walls were made of concrete and the floors uncarpeted.

They were loyal Catholics and their lives revolved around Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. Vega went to the church's school. He joined the altar boys in the second grade.

Vega was in the sixth grade when he met Father Fidencio, who came to the church as associate pastor and supervised the altar boys. He was an artist. He seemed worldly.

"He was like an older brother more than he was a priest," Vega said, remembering that when he was confirmed, Silva was his sponsor, his padrino. He'd go out with the family for dinner.

The molestation started when Vega was in the sixth grade, he said. He wasn't feeling well. He remembers Silva offering to help.

"He said "If you drop your pants, I can see how sick you are by how your testicles are hanging," " Vega said, adding that an almost clinical examination segued into fondling.

He said he was molested in incidents that involved fondling, digital penetration and masturbation. He didn't tell anyone, wasn't even sure how to think about it.

"As a Hispanic, the church has absolute power," Vega said. "It's always been part of my family. To go against it was incomprehensible."

Vega said he pushed the memories far back and went on with his life. He joined the Marines when he was 17 and became a sniper deployed in the Mediterranean, Australia, Japan and elsewhere.

In 1989, Vega helped rescue Marines from a helicopter that crashed in South Korea and killed 19 people. His heroism earned him a medal.

After more than eight years, Vega left the military and enrolled in the Los Angeles Police Academy. He remembers staring at a question on a written psychological survey. It asked if he had been molested.

"I said no that wasn't me, and I kind of pushed it away," he said.

After working as a Los Angeles officer, he joined the Oxnard Police Department and started a program that introduced at-risk kids to bicycling and kayaking. His wife, Amy, gave birth to two children. Kate is now 2 and Patrick is 6.

About three years ago, he was talking to a woman who confided she had been molested. Vega blurted out he had been abused, too, by a priest.

Sept. 11 brought everything closer to the surface. Somehow the trauma of the terrorist attacks made the molestation wounds more raw. Vega had trouble sleeping. He couldn't eat.

One night, he was with a childhood friend who had also been an altar boy at Our Lady of Guadalupe. Vega asked the question: Were you molested by Father Fidencio?

The answer was yes.

Things began to happen quickly. Both men asked other friends if they had been molested and formed a group of eight former altar boys. They met with lawyers eager to challenge the statute of limitations.

They filed the lawsuit, and Vega worked to lobby for an ultimately successful proposal to put civil time restrictions on a one-year hold, opening the doors for a flood of new lawsuits.

Vega remembers staring into the faces of lawmakers as he told his story and wondering how people would think of him. The same sensation came when he went back to work after being named in newspapers as a victim.

But it was OK. If people thought less of him, they didn't say. And though his family sometimes worries at the load on Vega's shoulders, he seems almost used to being known and identified as a clergy abuse victim.

"This is who I am," he said. "This is what happened to me."

He's involved with victims' rights causes and has agreed to do consultant work for the U.S. Department of Justice. This week, he started a new position with the Oxnard Police Department as a detective working on domestic violence and sexual assault cases.

Trying to explain why he does it all, Vega talks about trying to make sure other children aren't hurt. His wife, Amy, said flat-out she'd kill someone who molested her kids.

On the last day of his prayer vigil, people were dressed in white to symbolize rebirth and new beginnings. Vega was dressed in the same jeans and grungy green shirt he'd worn all week. He looked bad and felt worse.

"The church has moved on, but the victims are here suffering," he said.

But it also felt like he was making a difference. By Easter Sunday people noticed him. Some were even glad he was there.

Vega wants justice. He wants priests and church hierarchy to assume responsibility for their actions.

He doesn't know his next step, doesn't have a grand plan, except that when opportunities come to make a difference, he'll respond.

"How do you put it down?" he asked. "You can't."

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