16 Claims against Tacoma Priest Part of Settlement

By Steve Maynard
The News Tribune [Tacoma WA]
July 1, 2005

The Catholic Diocese of Sacramento agreed Wednesday to pay $35 million to settle 33 claims of sexual abuse by priests, including 16 against Tacoma priest Mario Blanco.

The plaintiffs will receive an average of $1.1 million, making it one of the largest clergy sex abuse settlements by the Catholic Church, per plaintiff, in the nation.

Tony Cano and 15 others accused Blanco of molesting them more than three decades ago. Blanco denies the accusations.

For Cano, 46, and his family, the church was always a shelter. His mother was raising five children and gleaned her strength from the Catholic Church, he said.

She was thrilled when Blanco, who served mainly Spanish-speaking parishes in the Sacramento Diocese from 1969 to 1973, took an interest in her son. He taught Cano music and helped him start a band.

Although Cano, then a preteen, joked with his friends about never wanting to ride in the front seat of Blanco's car, he couldn't bring himself to tell his mother of the abuse. He couldn't shatter her faith in the church, he said.

But when he saw Blanco on television news reports denying the accusations of others several years ago, saying he didn't even know his accusers, Cano couldn't stay silent.

"I had to speak up. He was calling us liars," he said. "I tried to hide it away. I was drinking, going about my life, but I always felt guilty of something. This has always haunted me."

With the agreement, the Sacramento Diocese settled all current claims of clergy sexual abuse. It made no admission of guilt in the agreement involving 10 priests.

The minimum paid out to each plaintiff will be $400,000 while the most one victim will receive is $4.25 million. The Diocese of Orange, Calif., agreed to pay a record $100 million to 87 victims, an average of $1,150,000 per plaintiff.

Blanco, originally from Costa Rica, was dismissed from the Sacramento Diocese following allegations of misconduct. He has worked as an independent, traditionalist priest in Tacoma since 1980.

Blanco insisted Wednesday night he is innocent and said his reputation has been damaged by his accusers.

"I know I'm innocent and God knows I'm innocent," said Blanco, 76. "I don't understand why the diocese settled."

Blanco said he forgives his accusers. "And I will pray for their souls so their souls won't go to hell for damaging the reputation of a priest," he said.

Blanco, frail and in poor health, recently suffered his seventh stroke and lives in a Tacoma nursing home.

Even though Blanco's speech is slurred and barely understandable, he continues to say Mass in Latin on Sunday mornings to about 40 people at his parish, Our Lady Mary Help of Christians Catholic Church. The church in Tacoma's Oakland neighborhood is not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle.

Blanco's supporters in Tacoma criticized the settlement Wednesday and insisted the priest is innocent.

"Oh heck, I really can't believe they paid them off," said Milton Fabre, who has known Blanco for 20 years. "That's a terrible way of doing it."

Blanco's insistence about innocence has infuriated plaintiffs. They were unable to file criminal charges because of the statute of limitations had run out and instead pursued civil cases. The settlement is the result of a 2002 state law that temporarily lifted the statute of limitations on civil sex abuse claims.

The money to pay the settlement will come from a combination of loans, sales of diocesan assets and a 15 percent reduction in diocesan operating expenses.

Francisco "Chico" Chavez, 37, and three of his brothers are four of the 16 who claim Blanco abused them.

The settlement came one day before the first civil case was scheduled for trial.

"I can't say I'm happy," said Chavez, the plaintiff in the case. "I guess you could say I'm relieved about not having to go to court and talk about it all."