Diocese at Fault, It Admits
The Case of Accused Priest Who Resurfaced Was 'Mishandled.'

By Jennifer Garza
May 2, 2003

TACOMA, Wash. -- The Rev. Mario Blanco did not attempt to hide.

The priest accused of sexually molesting a dozen young boys in the Sacramento Diocese more than 30 years ago has been leading traditionalist congregations in the Tacoma area for more than two decades, according to his parishioners.

They say he is a devout priest who serves both the poor and the wealthy, and is so well-known that actor Mel Gibson has flown Blanco to Southern California to celebrate Mass for his family.

Yet, after allegations surfaced last summer, Sacramento diocesan officials said that they had not heard from Blanco and believed he had died.

When they learned eight months ago Blanco was serving in the Pacific Northwest, they contacted the Seattle Archdiocese to inform it that he was in its area.

They did not, however, tell his alleged victims.

"We mishandled it," Sacramento Diocese spokesman Rev. James Murphy said this week. "It was a breakdown in communication internally. Could it have been handled better? Yes."

Blanco, 74, served in the Sacramento Diocese from 1969 to 1973. He was dismissed from the diocese following a church investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct. Later, Sacramento church officials settled two cases in which the priest was accused of sexual assault. Since April 2002, 10 men have sued the diocese claiming they were abused by Blanco. Sacramento Bishop William Weigand said in an interview last summer that the cases involving Blanco were "the most serious ever in the diocese."

Tuesday, after learning last week that Blanco is alive, three men filed police reports with the Sacramento Police Department, according to their attorney, Joseph George. Officials with the Sacramento District Attorney's Office said they have a year to file charges.

Blanco declined to comment for this story. But in an interview with The Bee last week he denied the accusations. He also said that he has been in failing health in recent years. Wednesday, Blanco suffered a stroke and was admitted to a Tacoma Hospital.

Questions about how the Blanco case was handled are now being asked by parishioners at the church where he now serves in Tacoma and by alleged victims in Sacramento.

"He's a priest, they had to know where he was," said George.

"He's a pretty high-profile priest," said John McCormack, a former Tacoma parishioner now studying to be a priest. "How could they not know?"

Sacramento church leaders said they lost track of Blanco about 20 years ago and presumed he had died. Church leaders who worked on the Blanco case have since died. When current diocesan officials heard that Blanco was alive, they contacted Seattle diocesan officials.

Dennis O'Leary, spokesman for the Seattle Archdiocese, said they immediately reported the allegations to local law enforcement officials.

"They searched their records and looked into it, but they determined they didn't have enough information to pursue it," said O'Leary. A Tacoma Police Department spokesman said last week no complaints have been filed against Blanco.

O'Leary said the diocese does not have authority over Blanco. "He is not associated with the Catholic Church," said O'Leary.

Traditionalist Catholics would dispute that.

Traditionalists consider themselves the only true Catholics. They do not accept the authority of post-Vatican II (mid-1960s) popes, and many believe Pope John Paul II is a heretic.

During the traditionalist Tridentine Latin-rite Mass, the priest faces the altar, not the congregants. Female worshippers are given headdresses when they enter the church to cover their heads. Parishioners kneel during much of the Mass.

Religion experts estimate about 100,000 traditionalist Catholics practice in the United States.

Since the mid-1980s, Blanco has served in the Pacific Northwest. In 1994, a traditionalist group he started purchased a church down the street from a school. A sign outside reads: "Our Lady Mary Help of Christians Church: Roman Catholic Church." Parishioners said about 100 people attend Sunday Mass.

"He is one of the most widely respected traditionalist priests around," said McCormack. "People flock to him ... these allegations are simply amazing."

Mike Sparling, 65, attended Our Lady Mary Help of Christians Church for about 12 years. Sparling became close to the priest and kept his schedule for several years. He said Blanco traveled to such cities as Redding, Spokane, Tucson, Denver and Los Angeles.

Sparling and several others said the priest was so respected that the actor Gibson regularly flew Blanco to Southern California to celebrate Mass for a group of traditionalists. He said the actor also took the priest to Mexico to buy vestments and other items for the church.

"Once, Father Blanco was thrilled because Mr. Gibson bought him a traveling case for his sacramentals," said Sparling.

He said Gibson and the priest parted ways about two years ago. Blanco told parishioners he stopped going to Gibson's church because it "wasn't traditional enough." Gibson's publicist said the actor was out of the country and could not be reached for comment. He added that Gibson's associates in Los Angeles said they had not heard of Blanco. Blanco's Tacoma parishioners said they have not seen inappropriate behavior by their priest. But questions reportedly have been raised at another church. According to a six-page letter Spokane parishioners said they received about two years ago, Blanco addressed concerns there about financial and sexual improprieties.

"I want to set the record straight regarding the false claims. ... It is downright degrading, humiliating and sacrilegious that I have had to resort to addressing this to so many good, traditional people," the letter said.

Thursday, Blanco's close friends said doctors told them the priest suffered his fourth stroke.

"He has always been there for us," said parishioner Marco Campos. "We'll be there for him. No matter what happens."


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