Accused Priest Led a Public Life

By Jennifer Garza
The News Tribune [Tacoma WA]
Downloaded May 6, 2003

Father Mario Blanco did not attempt to hide.

The priest accused of sexually molesting a dozen young boys in the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento more than 30 years ago has not only led traditionalist congregations in the Tacoma area since the mid-1980s, but he 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 diocese officials said that they believed the priest had died. When they learned eight months ago Blanco was serving in the Pacific Northwest, they contacted officials with the Archdiocese of Seattle to inform them that he was in their area.

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.

Last week, after learning that Blanco is alive and the pastor of Our Lady Mary Help of Christians Church in Tacoma, three men filed police reports with the Sacramento Police Department, according to their attorney, Joseph George. Officials with the Sacramento County District Attorney's office said they have a year to file charges.

Blanco, who has been in declining health for several years, denied the sex abuse accusations Wednesday morning, calling them "lies." That afternoon, Blanco suffered his fourth stroke and was admitted to a Tacoma hospital. He was released from the hospital Friday evening.

Javier Blanco, the priest's grandnephew, said Blanco told him he had no knowledge of the accusations until a reporter called nearly two weeks ago.

Many traditionalist priests, like Blanco, travel extensively celebrating Mass in Latin. They practice a form of the religion that goes back three centuries and do not accept the authority of any post-Vatican II pope.

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 that Blanco traveled to such cities as Redding, Calif., Spokane, Tucson, Ariz., 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," Sparling said.

Gibson has recently been the center of controversy because of comments made by his father, Hutton Gibson, who is also a traditionalist. Hutton Gibson told The New York Times that the Holocaust never happened and that the World Trade Center was destroyed by remote control.

Gibson's upcoming film, "The Passion," depicting the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus, worries some scholars that it might promote anti-Semitism. The Rev. William Fulco, a Jesuit priest and professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, said he has seen hours of footage from the production and finds nothing to fault.

Sparling said Gibson and Blanco 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.

Questions about how the Blanco case was handled are now being asked by parishioners and alleged victims in Sacramento.

Sacramento church leaders said they lost track of Blanco about 20 years ago and believed 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 archdiocese 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.

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

A Tacoma Police Department spokesman said no complaints have been filed against Blanco.

Since around the mid-1980s, Blanco has served in the Tacoma area, starting Our Lady Mary Help of Christians Church in Spanaway. In 1994, that group purchased a church in South Tacoma and moved there.

Blanco has been a pillar of the traditionalist community for years, according to supporters. Before his health failed, he was known as a priest willing to go wherever he was needed to celebrate Latin Mass. But every Sunday, he would try to return to the small church in the Oakland neighborhood of South Tacoma.

News Tribune staff writer Steve Maynard and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.


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