The Independent Newsweekly
|Church in Crisis|
Issue Date: April 25, 2003
By ARTHUR JONES
This Holy Week was special here because it was the first celebrated by Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony in his new cathedral. It may become a memorable week, too, for what happened outside.
On the Temple Street sidewalk, Manuel Vega, a 36-year-old Oxnard, Calif., police officer, was committed to a 24/7 Holy Week bread-and-water fast to urge Mahony to release all the internal archdiocesan files on priests. Vega, as an altar boy, was sexually abused by a priest who has since fled to Mexico.
Mahonys lawyers are claiming exemption for some 2,000 documents, arguing they are protected by bishop-priest privilege.
Police, lawyers and victims, however, believe it is those papers that will reveal names that will help convict priest perpetrators who have escaped thus far. Especially in cases where, to date, there is only one accuser.
Vega, a former U.S. Marine with the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for heroism, and Oxnards police officer of the year in 2000, is no pushover. His fast is not a case of a lone protester up against a cardinal.
As Holy Week progressed, Vega, married with two young children, slept each night in a small folding beach chair not far from the entrance to the plaza of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. He had some high-powered supporters.
Not least among them on April 15 was California State Sen. Joseph Dunn, point man on some key sex abuse legislation in the state capitol, and lawyer Larry Drivon, who drafted the 2002 California legislation that suspended for 2003 the statute of limitations against suing employers of known child molesters.
Stopping by periodically to check on their brother officer were Los Angeles Police Department members such as Detective Dale Barraclough, head of the Juvenile Divisions Sexually Exploited Children Unit, one of four detectives assigned to Los Angeles archdiocese molestation cases (NCR, March 21).
As the week progressed, other abuse victims, aggrieved parents, and a regular procession of local television camera crews, plus the print news reporters showed up outside the cathedral.
Vega wants the archdioceses documents out in the open. So did a father of six, a few yards away on the Temple Street sidewalk, who alleges that in 2001 a Los Angeles priest still in office abused three of his young sons.
To protect his children, NCR is not printing the family name. Nor is it publishing the name of the alleged priest perpetrator unless formal civil or criminal proceedings are pursued. The father of the boys said he had reported the case to the police, who had investigated it. The priest denied the molestation, so it was the priests word against that of three boys under 8 years. Right now, said the father, his case needs corroborative evidence that the priest has been accused of abusing others.
It is the possibility of finding corroborative evidence in archdiocesan files that motivates Vega. For his case he doesnt need the documents, since he has located 16 friends, altar boys at his childhood parish, who are ready to give evidence against their alleged molester, Fr. Fidencio Silva, a Missionary of the Holy Spirit. Silva served at Oxnards Our Lady of Guadalupe from 1979 to 1986.
The Ventura County district attorneys office has filed 25 child molestation felony counts against Silva, last heard of in Mexico in 2002.
Vega said, When [Silva] came to Our Lady of Guadalupe -- young, good-looking, very charismatic -- he spoke English in a Spanish-speaking community. He was put in charge of altar boys, approximately 60 of us.
In time he was in charge of the English- and Spanish-speaking youth groups, a lot of youth circulated around him. And during that time I became very close to him. He was my sponsor for confirmation. My parents loved him, Vega said.
He described the first molestation. The seventh grader had a fever one day and Silva said he could tell the boy how he was if you drop your pants.
I thought, A little unusual, but then, I was a Catholic, he was a priest, well, OK. But things progressed.
For that Easter, Vega alleged, Silva wanted to paint a Risen Christ for the church. The upstairs sacristry was where he established his studio. Boys from the youth group went up and modeled for him. Undressed.
But the boys werent telling each other, or anyone else, what was going on.
Vega explained that as a child, at that point, if you werent invited to model for him, you felt a little envious, you know. Thats how things were. He asked me to take my clothes off.
The policeman said he, with his 16 friends, have been able chronologically to see as he moved from one favorite to the next to the next, Vega said. As soon as he had tested the water, and pushed it as far as he could, and you said no, he moved to the next one.
Then there was a directive from the pastor to stay away from the rectory. As young altar boys, said Vega, we were allowed to go into the rectory, and go into the lounge. I was at the elementary school next to the church and I got to go to the rectory, you know. So I was proud. Sit down and eat their cashews -- that was the best part. They always had a bowl full of cashews.
In some cases we spent the night, slumber parties, the policeman said. Hed say, Hey, take off your shirt, its hot. So wed be walking around without our shirts. Unusual? No, not [to us] at our age. To somebody looking from the outside in -- yes.
The time came when the pastor said no one was to go upstairs unless accompanied by somebody else. From there to: Cant go upstairs, said Vega. From there to: You cant go out of the reception area. From there: You cant go inside the rectory. Theyd open the door and say no, hes not available, thank you.
Vega said that in the teenage years you dont think back to it too much.
He and his fiancée even considered having Silva preside at their wedding, but when they took him to lunch, he was cold, distant. They chose another priest instead -- who was later named as a molester, said Vega.
The policeman said even in 1992, when hired by the LAPD, what had happened didnt quite register with him. In the psychological test, he said, theres a question: Were you ever molested as a child? I stopped. I thought about it. No, no, that wasnt me.
At [the Police] Academy class on child pornography, sexual assault, rape, all that came up. I thought about it and said no, that wasnt me. It wasnt until about 1999 that my mother-in-law was talking about sexual abuse -- she was sexually abused by her stepfather -- that I finally told them a priest abused me. Id spoken.
Vega said, My subconscious started picking up on it, spiking and sort of hitting me. A fellow police officer asked me, Hey, have you seen a friend of ours who was sexually molested? I said no. When he said Silva molested him, thats when that whole thing started.
The fact that Silva is on the lam in Mexico is fine, said Vega. Eventually he has to surface. The priest is not a U.S. citizen but the FBI could go after him. Theres extradition. I do consulting work for the Department of Justice, I have connections there.
What troubles Vega most is the effect of all this on him and his family as Catholics.
As parents, he and his wife have become hypersensitive. It tears me up inside because from my life experiences and as a police officer Ive seen there are two pillars in life that we lean on. One based on family and the other on religion. And when ones lacking or both lacking, thats when were having problems. Now, as a Catholic parent, I want to believe things will get better.
In the end, he said, Im interested in bettering my church. I think the leadership here is lacking. This should have been handled a long time ago. The police are moving forward. This is a pivotal time.
He believes the documents have a lot more details and have to be released.
Thats what has to come out, he said. We were told at first in Boston it was just a slice of the pie. Guess what, we have a whole pie here.
Meanwhile Vega is sleeping out and living on four slices of bread a day -- one for breakfast, one for lunch, two for dinner, and all the water he can force down.
But this particular evening, his wife has told him shes bringing him a chicken salad. And if thats what my wife needs to bring me, said Vega, then Im going to sit down and eat it.
One thing for sure, hes safe on the sidewalk at night. No ones going to try to move him on, and the patrolling cars know theyre keeping an eye on a colleague.
Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
National Catholic Reporter, April 25, 2003
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