Catholic Faithful Feel Betrayed

By Jennifer Garza
Sacramento Bee
June 12, 2002

In the early 1970s, the Rev. Mario Blanco was a regular visitor to Seavey Circle, a poor, predominantly Latino neighborhood near Broadway in Sacramento.

Like other Spanish-speaking priests, Blanco floated among a handful of Latino parishes in the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento. Many Seavey Circle parents recognized him from their church, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and consented when Blanco offered to take their kids out for ice cream.

The children would go - but they'd all pile into the back seat of the priest's station wagon. That's because they knew something their parents did not. Blanco liked young boys.

"Everybody talked about it," said Eddie Cuevas, a Sacramento bail agent who grew up on Seavey Circle. "All the kids would say, whatever you do, don't get in the front seat with Blanco. So a lot of us just stayed away from him."

Some could not. Blanco, who served in the diocese from Oct. 23, 1969, to April 5, 1973, was later accused of sexually assaulting young boys. After an investigation by church officials, he was ordered out of the Sacramento diocese and left the priesthood.

The diocese eventually settled two claims by men who said Blanco had abused them when they were children. Another man filed suit last month.

In April, Bishop William K. Weigand of the Sacramento diocese announced that 14 priests over the past 30 years have been accused of sexual misconduct with minors. At that time, he named only two: Francisco Javier Garcia and Jorge Moreno. Blanco's name was revealed a few weeks later when a Sacramento man sued, claiming he had been molested by the priest.

The revelations that three priests who worked in the same parishes - two at the same time - had been accused of sexually molesting minors caught many by surprise. Alleged victims are angry because they say they were told they were the only ones who complained. Longtime parishioners are upset because they say they knew nothing about the accusations; many treated the priests like members of their family. And others complained that the only priests Weigand named publicly are Latinos who for years were shuffled among the poorest of parishes.

As U.S. bishops prepare to gather Thursday in Dallas to discuss a nationwide sexual abuse scandal, the story of these three Sacramento priests helps illustrate why the U.S. church is now in such a crisis. And why many believe the biggest challenge facing the bishops is restoring the trust of the faithful.

Diocesan officials say they dealt with the situations as best as they could at the time.

"I don't think anyone knew," said the Rev. Tom Bland, priest personnel director for the diocese. "And when they realized there was a problem, they did something."

A sense of betrayal

The three priests left the diocese years ago, but their alleged victims remember them clearly. Garcia was soft-spoken and kept to himself. Moreno was outgoing and had a gold front tooth. Blanco, a musician, started youth bands.

The 44-year-old man known as John Doe in court papers is now married, the father of two, and works in computers. Looking back, he says, he must have been an easy target.

He was a shy 13-year-old from south Sacramento. His father had died the year before and his mother was deeply devout. "She had complete respect for priests," he said.

He met Blanco when the priest came to his church to start a youth band. "What really gets me angry is that this guy preyed on someone so vulnerable," he said.

All three priests have been accused of preying on poor, Latino children. Some of their parents did not speak English. Others were not here legally. Often, a parent was deceased or out of the house.

"People trusted them," said a 46-year-old man who says he was molested by Garcia when he was 10. His parents were migrant farm workers in Dixon. "We were poor, but I remember my mother would always give him an extra portion of dinner because he was our priest."

Some say the priests took advantage of this trust.

"The Latino community was particularly hard hit by church policies protecting pedophile priests," said Joseph George, a Sacramento attorney who has represented Latino men who say they were molested by Blanco, Moreno and Garcia.

"Because of cultural values surrounding sexuality, these young men were particularly traumatized. ... Many of them could not discuss these incidents with their family."

Aurelio Berumen waited years before telling anyone. He says Blanco molested him for a little over a year, ending when Berumen was about 13. Later, Berumen became an alcoholic and a drug addict. He blames his problems on Blanco.

"When I heard that there were other victims, I was furious," said Berumen, 44, who received a $10,000 settlement from the diocese in 1991. He said he was told he was the only one to complain about the priest.

Nelly Hernandez is a longtime parishioner of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Moreno performed her children's marriages and presided over her son's funeral. She has been attending the church for three decades but first heard about the accusations against Moreno in April. She feels betrayed.

"If this is true, then he was no better than a criminal," she says.

Weigand was not serving in the diocese when the three priests arrived. But he was here when the accusations against Garcia and Moreno surfaced.

"We have made every effort to reach out to the victims," he said.

A change in policy

Because of the influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants to the Sacramento area in the early 1970s, many Spanish-speaking priests came here from other countries. Most of them, such as Garcia and Moreno, were from Mexico, but others came from throughout South America.

"The diocese couldn't keep up with the population," Weigand said. The priests would drive from one parish to another, celebrating Mass from Woodland to Vallejo to Weaverville.

At that time, a background check on a priest from another country typically consisted of a letter from the priest's bishop. If the bishop said the priest was in good standing, that was considered sufficient.

"You don't know as much about them as you'd like to know," Weigand said. "And every once in a while you got burned."

Blanco was from Costa Rica. He arrived in 1969 and was assigned to the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, according to diocesan records. A musician, Blanco also started youth bands at various churches. By 1973, he was gone.

Moreno served the longest. In 1970, he was assigned to Our Lady of Guadalupe and became pastor in 1975. In 1983, he left on a sabbatical; when he returned he served at several churches, including St. Peters in Dixon and Holy Rosary in Woodland.

In 1994, he was placed on leave after a former altar boy accused him of molesting him from the time he was 9 years old until he was 14. Moreno later moved to Mexico.

Garcia arrived in 1978 and, like Moreno, served at Our Lady of Guadalupe and Holy Rosary. The two priests were assigned to Our Lady of Guadalupe at the same time. Garcia also served at Sacred Heart Church in Maxwell. In 1995, he fled the country, and he is wanted on a dozen felony molestation charges in Yolo and Colusa counties.

Weigand considers Garcia's case to be the most serious. Law enforcement officials told him the allegations were credible. Diocesan officials have contacted Garcia, reminding him of his legal obligations.

"We told him that if he is guilty, then he must face the consequences and if he is not, then this is an opportunity to clear his name," Weigand said. "He refuses to come."

Diocesan policy on foreign priests has now changed. Instead of bringing priests from other countries, the practice is to recruit students or seminarians. This gives church officials several years to observe the priests and the young men have time to adapt.

But the problems haven't gone away. Recently, a visiting priest from Mexico was arrested on suspicion of indecent exposure.

Umberto Soto Penunuri, 64, is on paid leave until the church's investigation is complete.

Town hall meetings

Some say the church should do more to inform the Latino community about these priests and ask why the church has not set up a hotline for Spanish-speaking people to call with information about possible sexual abuse.

"I just find it strange that here you have this huge Latino population and these three priests and yet no one thinks to set up a hotline in Spanish," said Jose Gonzalez, parishioner at Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Fifty percent of the Catholics in the Sacramento diocese are Latino, according to Auxiliary Bishop Richard Garcia. Spanish Mass is now celebrated in 60 of the 98 parishes.

Weigand agrees that the diocese should have a Spanish hotline. "We have fallen short there."

Diocesan officials have made attempts to reach victims. In 1995, meetings were held in Woodland and Williams to announce the allegations against Garcia. Weigand met with families in Williams and publicly appealed for more victims to come forward.

Recently, meetings have been held at several of the Spanish-speaking parishes to discuss the current sexual abuse scandal.

Blanco continued visiting Seavey Circle until the summer of 1972, former residents say. They say that's when the priest touched one of the neighborhood boys, who then ran home and told his older brother. That brother beat up the priest and told him to never come back. Blanco never returned.

He is believed to be dead. Garcia and Moreno are said to be in Mexico. Their alleged victims are grown men, but they still struggle with what they say these priests did to them three decades ago when they were boys.

One man, who did not want his name used, says Moreno abused him when the youth group took a trip to Southern California. He has heard that the priest returns to Sacramento occasionally to see old friends.

"All I can say is that I hope I never see him again," said the man, now 43. "I don't know what I'd do."


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