TRAGIC CASE OF REV. NICOLAS AGUILAR-RIVERA TRIGGERED MAJOR CHANGES
Cardinal Roger Mahony Blogs LA
February 23, 2014
It was in early 1988—some 26 years ago—that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles became aware of the terrible sexual abuse which the Rev. Nicolas Aguilar-Rivera had been inflicting upon young people in Los Angeles. This case highlighted errors made by us in the Archdiocese in those early years, and for those errors I apologize once again. But this case also led to several major changes in procedures used by the Archdiocese, and these were improved upon over the years.
It is key to understand that the first report about Aguilar-Rivera to one of our Catholic schools and to the Archdiocese took place late on a Friday afternoon, January 8, 1988. That late Friday alert, unfortunately, led to delays which should not have occurred.
The following are the more serious errors which several of us in the Archdiocese made, along with the steps taken to eliminate them in the future:
I. Letters of Recommendation for Priests from Other Dioceses. Aguilar-Rivera arrived in Los Angeles with a letter from his Bishop in Mexico stating that he was coming to Los Angeles for “family and health reasons” [“por motivos familiares y por motivos de salud”] because he had family here. The Bishop asked that we consider giving him a priestly assignment here in the Archdiocese. Based on that positive recommendation, Aguilar-Rivera was given a temporary assignment. Throughout 1987 there were no reports of improper conduct by Aguilar-Rivera. It was not until early 1988 that such reports emerged from families of children abused.
After further investigation, the Bishop in Mexico claimed that he had sent a second letter about Aguilar-Rivera some two months after his original letter. No one in the Archdiocese recalls ever receiving such a letter in which the Bishop refers to unfounded allegations of homosexual problems that led to physical aggression against him in Mexico. Had that letter been received, Aguilar-Rivera’s assignment would have been revoked or suspended pending a full investigation.
Change in Procedures: Because of this case, from this time forward a letter of recommendation from a Bishop on behalf of a visiting priest was insufficient. A new format was developed requiring the sending Bishop, especially from a Diocese outside the USA, to respond to very specific questions about any possible misconduct in the history of the priest. This change in procedure was enhanced over the years and has served to make sure that priest from other places with any misconduct issues is not admitted to this Archdiocese.
II. Priest Removed from Ministry. Early on Saturday morning, the Vicar for Clergy went to the parish where Aguilar-Rivera was assigned, revoked his Faculties to function as a priest in Los Angeles, and ordered him to leave the parish in order not to endanger any other children. Aguilar-Rivera stated that he was going to stay with his sister, and without a priestly assignment in Los Angeles, he would return to Mexico. Since the police were not informed until Monday morning about Aguilar-Rivera, he in fact stayed briefly at his sister’s, and then fled the country. That was a serious mistake.
Change in Procedures: Since the new danger of fleeing from the civil authorities had emerged, beginning procedures were put into place to deal more quickly with priests from other countries who had been accused of the abuse of minors in the Archdiocese. Unfortunately, in a few other cases allegations of abuse emerged only after the priest had left the Archdiocese, and he was out of reach by both the civil and Church authorities.
III. Attempts to Reach Child Protective Services. On Saturday and Sunday, January 9 and 10, the Catholic School teacher who learned of the abuse tried to contact the appropriate reporting agency, Child Protective Services. No one answered the phone all weekend. Early on Monday morning the teacher instead called the Los Angeles Police Department [LAPD] and quickly an officer responded.
Changes in Procedure: Following the case of Aguilar-Rivera, and the futile attempts to reach the staff of Child Protective Services at night and on weekends, that agency instituted a new “800” number which would be answered 24/7. That change has been in effect ever since, and a staff person is always available to take a report of suspected child abuse, and to begin at once processes to investigate the report.
IV. Communication with Police Agencies. Had officials of the Archdiocese been in immediate contact with the LAPD, Aguilar-Rivera could have been held pending a full civil investigation. That delay was a serious error. In addition, when the police requested a list of the altar servers in the parish where Aguilar-Rivera was last assigned, that request was denied because the recent allegations were from families from another parish, and the allegations were that Aguilar-River had molested the minors at the home of the families, not on Church property. That refusal was also a mistake.
Changes in Procedure: On March 4th I met Lt. Steven Day of the LAPD at a conference, and we discussed the mistakes made in the Aguilar-Rivera case. As a result, a special meeting took place on March 9th with Capt. Mayes and Lt. Day, and officials of the Archdiocese. The result of that meeting led to new lines of open communication with the LAPD, and the assurance that all future allegations of the abuse of minors would be made directly to that police agency—regardless of who was the mandated reporter.
V. Communication with Parishioners. It also emerged that efforts to protect children and their families from any negative impact a police investigation might have upon them was a serious mistake. As subsequent years would show, the sooner that the victims of abuse are identified, the sooner the threat to them can be removed, and the sooner counseling services can be made available to the victims.
Changes in Procedure: It became clear over the years that a firm plan to inform all parishioners of allegations of the sexual abuse of minors within that parish must be implemented. Announcements by an Archdiocesan official were to be made at all Masses on a given weekend, and parishioners were asked to come forward if they were aware of any victims or other useful information. If particular groups of minors, e.g., students or youth group members, were victims, then special outreach efforts to those groups would also be taken.
VI. Counseling for Victims Once the young victims were identified, they were referred to an experienced counselor to assist them with the trauma of their awful ordeal. All of these victims remained in counseling until the counselor felt that no further services were required.
Changes in Procedure: In the years following the abuse of these young victims, a more intensive and protracted program of counseling was put in place, and other family members were actively involved in those sessions so that the young victims could be assisted even more fully.
VII. Pursuit of Aguilar-Rivera in Mexico: The Bishop of Aguilar-Rivera was informed at once of the moral and criminal conduct of the priest, and the Bishop was urged to assist in returning him to Los Angeles to face the legal consequences of his actions. The Bishop reported that he never returned to his home Diocese, but that he would keep alert to see if he could be located. Whenever word was received that Aguilar-Rivera was spotted in this or that location, we sent letters immediately to those Bishops to make sure that he was not allowed to function as a priest, and to assist us in locating him for return to Los Angeles.
Changes in Procedure: The Archdiocese continued to send letters across Mexico in the hope of locating Aguilar-Rivera, and having the LAPD work with local civic authorities to have him returned to Los Angeles since felonies had been committed. However, no credible sighting of him ever occurred. The new procedures required the immediate notification of law enforcement, but especially if a foreign national were involved.
VIII. Conclusion. The case of Aguilar-Rivera was the first one with sexual misconduct allegations involving a priest from a foreign country who was an extern, or visitor, to the Archdiocese. This early case would be part of an ever more stringent set of procedures to respond to such cases, to protect all children and young people, and to make certain that the Church was safe for all people. The evolution of procedures would continue into the 1990s and beyond.