Adversity Has Drawn Community Together

By Kim Vo and HongDao Nguyen
Mercury News [Saratoga CA]
April 1, 2006

Faith and forgiveness. That's what members of Sacred Heart Parish in Saratoga say they're leaning on after another sex allegation surfaced against a priest within their tight-knit community.

The Rev. Randy Benas is accused of raping an Oregon woman who was seeking spiritual counseling. His arrest comes more than a year after a monsignor was placed on leave, then resigned as church pastor, amid accusations that he molested altar boys in the late 1970s when he was at another congregation.

"Does it feel like a punch in the stomach?" said Ron Lewis, a church member for three decades. "Yeah, we're human. But you're going to hear that, `My heart goes out to him.' "

Parishioners say they banded together after allegations surfaced against Monsignor Alexander Larkin, and they expect to do so again with these new charges.

"We have had some trials in the past," said parishioner Ellen Roeckl "As a result we've come together as a strong family."

About 1,000 families and retirees worship at Sacred Heart, a Catholic Church on Saratoga Avenue where a cross rises higher than the trees. Families enroll their children in the parochial school next door. And after Sunday Mass, fellow parishioners linger to catch up on family and church news.

It's common for people to go camping together, or inquire about one another's sick relatives. That closeness -- along with the belief that only God should judge -- has led to many reserving judgment on other church members.

"I think anyone can make an accusation," said Martin Schibler, a parishioner since 1958. "Maybe I'm too practical or too skeptical or something, but I don't see any point in going on rumor."

People stressed that both Benas and Larkin had only been accused of wrongdoing. Benas, who was arrested at the church Thursday, is currently at the Santa Clara County Jail on a rape charge. No charges were filed against Larkin, who had denied any wrongdoing and is currently on administrative leave from the San Jose Diocese. A lawsuit stemming from the accusations has been settled.

Lewis, who first came to the church with his parents and now takes his own triplets, said supporting the priests shows that people don't automatically believe the allegations.

"On the flip side, even our spiritual leaders are mortal and human and they make mistakes," he said. "If you can't find forgiveness -- even if you feel you've been betrayed -- that's on you."

Benas is described as a pleasant and personable man who often joked with people. The congregation recently celebrated his 20th anniversary as a priest.

Known as "Father Randy," he presided over Mass and delivered homilies. He has been placed on administrative leave until the criminal case is resolved, said Monsignor Francis Cilia, vicar general for the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Jose.

Benas' duties will now be filled by other priests within the diocese or a retired priest until a permanent pastor arrives this summer, said Elizabeth Lilly, minister of parish life at Sacred Heart.

The situation is difficult for parishioners, who Lilly described as "very surprised and sad."

"Catholics look to their priests for leadership in prayer and sacrament," she said.

Parishioners are praying for the priest, Roeckl said. In the end, it's their ties that will keep the church afloat.

"A lot of things test my faith," Roeckl said. "I think people will have some soul searching to do, but we have a strong community."

Mercury News Staff Writer Brandon Bailey contributed to this report.

Contact Kim Vo at or (408) 920-5719.


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