Followers Confident in Priests

By Roger W. Hoskins
Modesto Bee
March 27, 2005

Members of St. Joseph's Catholic Church hailed a jury's verdict that cleared a priest of sexual battery.

However, the jury awarded the family $20,000 for emotional distress over the way the Rev. Francis Arakal and the Rev. Joseph Illo responded to a child's complaint about the incident.

And a spokeswoman for the girls who sued worried that the case will keep people from coming forward to confront abusers.

Shannon Munoz, a 32-year-old mother of three, was waiting for St. Joseph's Easter Vigil Saturday. She found fault with the jury's mixed reasoning.

"I don't think the family should have been awarded anything. I don't think the parish is at fault," she said.

She expressed complete confidence in both priests. "If I didn't have confidence in them, I wouldn't be here now and every Wednesday and Sunday."

The trial arose from a civil lawsuit in which a Hughson family with three daughters alleged that Arakal had touched one of the girl's breasts.

An attorney said the $20,000 the family was awarded will go toward legal fees. The mother of the accuser refused to comment on the outcome of the case.

David Chaffey, 50, of Modesto was certain the priests were innocent. "I'd sooner believe snow in the Sahara Desert than believe Father Francis or Joseph could be guilty of those things. I know them."

Dwaine Stephan feels his faith is too often a target. "You don't see that many negative things about other churches," Stephan said.

Jennifer Chapin of Oakdale is co-leader of the Sacramento-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. She, too, was puzzled by Friday's verdict.

Chapin said the Stockton Diocese' performance in the case "scares me to death. (The diocese) says they are changing but they handled the situation the very same way they did in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s.

"How can any child feel safe coming forward to anyone after what happened to this family? They were shunned and driven out of their own church."

Illo, pastor of St. Joseph's, expressed relief and extended an olive branch. "We're very happy it's over, and we wish God's blessing on the plaintiffs," Illo said. "We've all suffered through this experience. We weren't seeking vindication but justice."

He said he and other priests had to strive to be even more careful when dealing with children and teens. "We enacted a protocol about how to minister to minors eight months ago. This just underscores how careful we have to be."

The lawsuit had accused Arakal of touching the breast of the eldest daughter, twice, while pinning her to the ground in July 2001. Arakal called the incident harmless, saying it occurred during a "tickle fight."

The lawsuit targeted Arakal and Illo for how they reacted to the middle daughter in September 2001 when she reported concerns about Arakal. The girl approached Illo in a courtyard, and he took her to his office. Then he brought in Arakal and asked the girl to repeat her concerns in front of him.

The then-10-year-old became hysterical and had to be comforted by a church secretary.

Illo said he could tell after questioning the girl that there was nothing to her claims.

He said he believed the child was being manipulated by her mother, who wrote what he described as love letters to him.


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