Catholic Priest Sexual Abuse Survivor Suing Oakland Diocese and East Bay Churches
By Joseph Geha
May 27, 2020
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland and two East Bay churches are the target of a lawsuit by a young man who was sexually abused by a priest when he was a child, his attorney said Tuesday.
In a complaint recently filed in Alameda County Superior Court, the victim seeks unspecified damages against the the Diocese, St. John’s Catholic Church in San Lorenzo, and Corpus Christi Church in Fremont, accusing them of negligence in not protecting children like him from “predator priests.”
The complaint also includes new details about the abuse the man, referred to as John Doe in the complaint for privacy, said he experienced when he was 14 and 15 at the hands of Hector David Mendoza-Vela, also known as the Rev. David Mendoza-Vela, 43, who worked at both churches.
“Our allegation is that the church had many opportunities to prevent this from happening, and once it started happening, to end it,” John Winer, the victim’s attorney said about the abuse in an interview Tuesday.
In an interview with this news organization, the victim said Tuesday that Mendoza-Vela’s actions caused him suicidal thoughts and actions, trauma, and have shaken his faith in God.
Mendoza-Vela initially was charged by authorities last year with 30 counts of sexual abuse against the victim over the span of 18 months between 2016 and 2017. However, he later accepted a deal with prosecutors, pleading no contest to five counts of of lewd or lascivious acts on a child age 14 or 15, and was sentenced in September to four years and eight months in prison.
The rest of his 25 charges were dismissed as part of the charges of molesting the victim, and he is currently serving time in San Quentin State Prison, and is eligible for parole in July 2021, according to the state’s inmate information website.
The victim said his family housed Mendoza-Vela in their home while his residence at Corpus Christi was being renovated as a kind gesture, but the priest took advantage, touching his genitals in his own bed while he was asleep. Doe also claims he once awoke to find Mendoza-Vela touching his younger brother.
“To be quite honest, I froze during the abuse, I froze,” the man, who is now 18, said Tuesday.
Among the dozens of times he said Mendoza-Vela abused him, the young man said the first two times shocked him the most.
“He got me twice, I felt like a fool,” he said. “I feel like the hardest thing was knowing that he got my brother too.”
“I was abused so consistently, I feel like that was my breaking point and I had this rush of anger, hatred, and everything in between. Mostly I was just scared. Scared for my family, scared for my brothers, I didn’t know what this man was capable of,” the victim said.
The victim and his attorney say the abuse also happened at church, and in Mendoza-Vela’s car, as the priest would pick the him up from school on Wednesdays, and his family, devout Catholics, trusted the priest to take their son to the movies and visit him at home.
“We were backstabbed in the end, brutally backstabbed. There is no lighter way of putting it,” the victim said.
“This is one of the most flagrant cases of abuse that I’ve ever seen,” Winer said.
“To be invaded in your home, as well as your place of worship, I mean where is safe? There’s nowhere safe for Mr. Doe, or kids like him.”
Bishop Michael C. Barber of the Diocese of Oakland did not return requests for comment, but a spokeswoman for the Diocese said Tuesday in an email that “As of this moment, we haven’t been served the lawsuit, so we’re not able to make comments on its content.”
Mendoza-Vela was placed on administrative leave after his arrest and restricted from acting as a priest, but his current status in the church is unclear. In August, the Diocese said it had begun a “canonical process” regarding Mendoza-Vela’s status in the church, which can result in him being removed from the priesthood.
Helen Osman, the Diocese spokeswoman, said Tuesday, “There is no update on the canonical process, since it is ongoing.”
Winer said church officials should never have let Mendoza-Vela live in the house of parishioners, and the church should have been aware that he was picking up the victim and taking him places.
“The Diocese and churches are well aware of the prior problems of sexual abuse within the churches and should have taken appropriate steps to prevent this from happening,” Winer said.
“It’s terrible, and they can’t keep turning a blind eye to the abuse that’s happening over and over again, always to vulnerable children, and generally from families who are so committed to the church they have a hard time believing that a priest would do the kind of things that this priest did,” Winer said.
The victim was embarrassed about the abuse, and kept it to himself until he revealed it to his therapist in March 2019, who informed authorities, and told him to tell his parents.
Mendoza-Vela was arrested on March 28, 2019, after officers from the Alameda County Sheriff’s special victims unit recorded him on a phone call apologizing to to the victim for touching his genitals while knowing he was 14 when the abuse began, authorities said.
Prosecutors said previously that in an interview with authorities, Mendoza-Vela, “confessed to inappropriately touching” the genitals of a 14- or 15-year-old boy over his pants “at least 20 times” from June 2016 through December 2017 while he was a priest.
Winer said the case shows how the Diocese and churches learned nothing from past abuse scandals and lawsuits, and failed to prevent others from suffering sexual abuse at the hands of priests.
“It’s just as bad as it’s always been,” Winer said. “It’s obscene in this day and age, or even about five years ago, that an event like this could happen actually at a church,” he said.
“This is an opportunity (for the victim) to not only seek compensation for himself, but to seek compensation in such a way that the Mendoza-Vela’s of this world are finally stopped.”