A Symbolic Meeting with Bishop

By Makeba Scott Hunter [Paterson NJ]
May 5, 2005

Johnny Vega walked into the offices of the Paterson Diocese two weeks ago with a pair of his trademark military-style boots slung over his shoulder. When he left the bishop's office, an hour-and-a-half later, he only had one.

And that was a good thing. A very good thing. For Vega, 41, that one little child-sized boot served as a symbol of his recent struggles with the diocese and Catholicism together. The meeting was one final and important step in his quest to reconcile with the Catholic Church - the church that he was raised in, that his parents were raised in and their parents, as well, the church where he served as an altar boy as a youth.

And the church that he alleges covered up his sexual abuse at the hands of the Rev. Jose Alonzo and Deacon Carlos Guzman at Our Lady of Victories and St. John's Cathedral, both in Paterson, when he was between the ages of 11 and 16.

Vega, of Wallington, was one of 27 plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the Paterson Diocese alleging sex abuse by area priests. The lawsuit was filed in January 2004 and settled last February - without an admission of guilt or wrongdoing, by the diocese - for $5 million, four years of paid counseling and, upon request, a one-on-one meeting with Paterson Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli. (Serratelli was not the bishop during the time of the alleged abuse.)

Vega is the first plaintiff to request a meeting with Serratelli. And he felt it only fitting to bring the boots. He's been carrying them around with him all year - to court proceedings, press conferences, support group meetings - as a reminder of comments made by the diocese lawyer, Ken Mullaney, early in the case.

"Mullaney made a comment toward the beginning of the year when we first started the lawsuit about us (victims) having to strap on boots and move on with our lives. I took that very personally. I thought it was an insensitive comment," Vega said at the Feb. 15 press conference announcing the settlement.

Responding to Vega's remarks, Mullaney said, "I have no comment about Mr. Johnny Vega or anything that he says about me."

At the press conference, Vega said, "I bring them with me today only as a symbol that, yeah, eventually I will put them on, and I'll strap them up and I will probably do the best I can with moving on with my life," he continued, "but at the same time, I plan on strapping my boots on with the bishop so we can work together to stop pedophile priests."

At 2:15 p.m. on April 29, the time came for Vega to make good on that statement. After battling with the diocese for more than two years, the time finally came to make peace ... some peace.

"I decided I wanted to meet with him with my wife present," Vega said. "I want to personally tell him how I feel about everything that I've gone through. I think until this day, until they actually have sat down with us, listened to our stories of what we've been through, until that happens they'll never get it. They'll never understand what a person goes through as a child.

"I just wanted the bishop to keep in mind that one day a child may come to him about abuse. I hope he listens and takes it seriously and reports it to the church."

When Vega walked through the front doors of the diocese office at 3:30 p.m., he seemed relieved, and cautiously optimistic.

"He really wanted to listen to what I had to say. And he did, he did listen. He seemed genuine about everything," Vega said afterward.

"He's pretty much taking the approach that it's not a priestly thing, you know, when a priest does what he does as far as harming children.

"Now, I'm holding him responsible for whatever happens in the future. We've had our meeting, I've heard what he had to say, and I'm taking that to heart. I'm going to remember what he has written here."

Then Vega showed his boot. On the toe, in gold marker, it reads, "Blessed are the feet that bring good news, God Bless. Arthur J. Serratelli."

"I gave him one that I signed personally, too," said Vega. "I wrote: 'Truth, courage and strength' on it."

Vega, the founder of the Latino branch of N.J. Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, also invited the bishop to the group's meetings, saying he could choose whatever month he wanted to attend. In return, Vega said, the bishop "extended his invitation to us anytime we wanted to come (to the church). I know the door is open from both ends."

Serratelli views his meeting with Vega as pastoral, and therefore declined to comment on it specifically. Instead, he released the following statement through diocese spokeswoman Marianna Thompson:

"When Bishop Serratelli was announced as the new Bishop of Paterson, he said that he fully intended to study all the allegations against priests and deacons in the Diocese of Paterson. Bishop Serratelli worked on seeking a fair solution and conciliation with sex abuse plaintiffs as one of his first priorities. He always viewed these allegations as serious situations that needed to be addressed.

"Our parishes are very different places today and we work diligently so that they will remain so."

Vega says his meeting with Serratelli "is a final closure as far as my life goes with the sexual abuse. Now I can go on and do what I have to do. ... Get myself help and have a better relationship with my wife. We have a lot of years of catching up.

"I am still cautious about what the church's role will be when, God forbid, there is another accusation of abuse by a priest ... I hope that they do report it right away and not do their own investigation before they report it."

But, he said of the meeting, "It's a start, you have to start somewhere. I guess it's just God's blessing that this is the way it ended. It was special. It was a special day, definitely."


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