Tacoma Priest Trial to Begin in Sacramento

By Jennifer Garza and Steve Maynard
The News Tribune [Sacramento CA]
June 28, 2005

SACRAMENTO A Tacoma priest will be at the center of a civil trial in Sacramento Superior Court scheduled to start Thursday for child sexual abuse alleged to have happened three decades ago. If the case isn't settled this week, it could be one of a handful of sex abuse cases against the Catholic Church to go to trial. Francisco Chavez says he was repeatedly sexually assaulted by the Rev. Mario Blanco from about age 5 to 13. Chavez' attorney describes the priest, now working as a schismatic in Tacoma, as a "predator."

"It's not true," said Blanco, after celebrating Mass on Sunday at Our Lady Mary Help of Christians Catholic Church. "It's a sin. I cannot do it."

Blanco served in the Sacramento diocese from October 1969 to April 1973 and was later dismissed following allegations of misconduct. A talented musician, he was a popular priest who served at predominantly Latino parishes. The priest floated among several Spanish-speaking congregations where he started youth bands.

The trial is the first in the Sacramento Diocese since the state of California temporarily lifted the statute of limitations for filing sex-abuse claims in 2002. The diocese is dealing with 31 plaintiffs who say they were sexually abused by clergy; 16 of them are allegations against Blanco. The diocese previously settled two lawsuits involving the priest.

"He was a serial predator," said Jeff Anderson, a Minnesota attorney, who specializes in abuse cases and is representing Chavez. "As a result, he was allowed to abuse kids, most of them poor, most of them Hispanic."

Anderson says the diocese is responsible for not telling people about the priest. "They could have said something and they didn't," he said.

Jim Sweeney, attorney for the diocese, said it was not the responsibility of the church officials to say why Blanco was dismissed.

"You don't go out and tell people why someone was fired," said Sweeney. He added that "there is evidence to suggest he (Blanco) engaged in sexual misconduct. But the question of third-party liability under California law is a much more difficult question."

The two sides are in ongoing mediation talks and could possibly settle the case before the trial begins, said Anderson. He added that nationwide, only 10 cases against the Roman Catholic Church have gone to trial.

Blanco, 76, has not been called by either side to testify in court.

He is frail and in poor health after his seventh stroke in early May and has been living in a Tacoma nursing home since then. His speech is slurred and barely understandable. He takes 16 medications and is undergoing therapy to regain his movements. Yet he vows to continue celebrating Mass "as long as I can."

Blanco says he has no recollection of ever meeting his accusers and insists they are motivated by greed. "They want money," Blanco said. "I don't have any money."

Francisco Chavez, 37, declined to be interviewed for this story, citing the upcoming court date. But in a 2003 interview, he said the priest manipulated his way into the family and his parents were so trusting that they let the priest spend hours alone with their children. Chavez said he was too ashamed and frightened to tell anyone about the abuse and that the priest threatened the family.

Chavez, who works for a social service agency that provides food for the needy, said at the time that he was determined to go to court. "I'm not that vulnerable little kid anymore," he said.

Blanco has been working as an independent, traditionalist priest in the Tacoma area since about 1980. He rejects Vatican II, celebrates Mass in Latin and does not recognize the authority of the Pope. He is not affiliated with the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle.

Attendance at Blanco's church has fallen since the accusations became public in 2003. Javier Blanco, the priest's grandnephew, said the parish is barely able to pay its mortgage and utility bills. He said the church received threatening and obscene phone messages after media reports. Mario Blanco would not allow his picture to be taken because he's worried that "somebody might kill me."

Parishioners defended their priest. Mary-Kate Elliser said her two sons, now adults, were altar boys in the church. They told her Blanco never did or said anything inappropriate. She called the allegations lies.

"Money, money, money," Elliser said. "They're looking for the cash cow."

Joseph George, one of the attorneys representing Chavez, said his client is ready for his day in court.

"He represents survivors very well," said George. "He's emotionally equipped to handle the rigors of a trial."