LONG BEACH — In an expanding community effort to slow youth-gang crime, priests at four inner-city Roman Catholic churches pledged Tuesday to make the welfare of wayward youngsters a top parish priority.
Swamped by day-to-day responsibilities and unsure of what to do to recapture youngsters lost to gangs, local parishes have often done too little to combat gang membership now estimated at 2,725 in Long Beach, priests said this week.
One parish simply stopped holding youth dances because it feared gang violence, said Los Angeles Southern Region Bishop Carl Fisher, a former inner-city priest who moved to Lakewood from the Baltimore ghetto 3 1/2 months ago.
'Do Positive Things'
"Good people have not been doing very much, and it's time for us to go in and do the positive things that are beneficial to our young people," Fisher said after a meeting at St. Anthony Church with priests from the four Long Beach parishes most affected by gangs.
During that meeting, the bishop said, the priests agreed to open their doors to new youth activities, set up anti-gang committees and work both among themselves and with others in the community as a broad network to fight gangs is formed in coming months.
While the greatest commitment will come from the poorer inner-city parishes--St Anthony, St. Lucy, St. Matthew and Holy Innocents--the financial costs of expanded youth programs will be shared by the area's richer churches, Fisher said.
"If, for example, the youth group at St. Lucy needs to take a trip, buy T-shirts, put on a dance or start a tutorial program . . . then I'll go door to door and beg for some of the resources. And I'm sure the parishes won't turn down their bishop," said Fisher, whose region includes 46 cities in the South Bay, Long Beach and Southeast areas.
The priests' commitment comes during a week of meetings aimed at ensuring that the city's most recent anti-gang effort does not end when a report is given to the City Council in three weeks.
'We Want Some Action'
"We want some action to follow," said Jerome Torres, city liaison to a gangs and drugs task force due to complete nine months of work by adopting recommendations on July 29. "The community must buy into this."
What Torres and his colleagues have in mind is creation of a single independent agency through which youngsters identified by police, schools, churches and the courts as potential hard-core gang members can be routed to agencies and private businesses that provide jobs, education and other assistance.
The central agency would track the progress of a youngster, give parents a place to call for help and let "at risk" youths know that they must be accountable for their actions.
"And they'll know there are alternatives to hanging out on a street corner," Torres said.
The task force is modeling its recommendations after a seven-year-old private San Fernando Valley project that now helps about 3,000 troubled youngsters a year and whose structure is being adopted by cities and counties throughout the state.
The initial 60 cooperating agencies and businesses has increased to about 1,500, a spokeswoman for the Van Nuys-based Juvenile Justice Connection Project said.
Also being studied is a more narrowly focused East Los Angeles anti-gang program that police agencies say has helped cut killings in that Latino neighborhood from 24 in 1978 to four last year--even as gang murders citywide were increasing.
Police say the Catholic church in that area played a key role in coordinating the efforts of families, schools and the criminal justice system.
Indeed, Torres said that perhaps the most significant commitment by Fisher Tuesday was to bring Brother Modesto Leon, a primary architect of the East Los Angeles program, to Long Beach to help build a similar structure here.
"Churches are a place to begin," Leon said in an interview. "Even though these kids are not attending, they all belong to a church. The roots are there.
'Everybody Knows Everybody'
"Some churches use neighborhood watches," he added. "I get calls all the time, 'They say this kid is doing this and this kid is doing that.' Everybody knows everybody. And that's the way it used to be in the old days before we put bars on our windows and let our neighbors take care of themselves."
The San Fernando Valley and East Los Angeles projects also have shown that federal, state and local grants are more readily available to agencies that work together rather than competing to provide similar services, Torres said.
To that end, Torres--who says he is a former gang member--pressed the task force's agenda this week. On Tuesday, he secured a commitment of cooperation from the county-wide director of the United Way's anti-gang programs, attended the priests' meeting and met with two minority-community representatives who talked about how their organizations might fit into a larger service network.