YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Priests: Escapes, Evasions

March 20, 1988|Jason Berry | Jason Berry is an investigative reporter who specializes in church issues.

NEW ORLEANS — A Roman Catholic priest assigned to two parishes in Los Angeles fled to Mexico in mid-January after accusations that he sexually molested as many as 26 altar boys, according to police investigators. An archdiocesan spokesman said that Father Nicolas Aguilar Rivera was removed from all church duties and two days later "chose to leave"--before police had an opportunity to investigate.

Doubt and bitterness cloak these events. Families, worrying about impact on their children, feel betrayed by the institution of their faith. Police feel thwarted by the church's failure to prevent Aguilar's escape.

Pedophilia--the sexual fixation of an adult on children--is an addictive disease, often marked by years of encounters with many victims.

This is not a case without precedent in Los Angeles. In 1986 a distraught mother told a sheriff's deputy that her pastor, the Rev. John A. Salazar, had sodomized her 13-year-old boy. The priest was sentenced to six years in prison. Only later did authorities learn that Salazar had been transferred from another parish, before the case, after similar allegations.

Nor is the Aguilar incident the first time a priest left the country stalked by allegations. In 1985 in Lafayette, La., Father John Engbers was accused by five women, siblings, of having systematically molested them as children. Their attorney, Anthony Fontana, unable to convince the diocese to suspend Engers, privately informed the bishop that he would be filing suit on behalf of the women. Engbers promptly fled to his native Holland. Litigation is continuing.

The church has yet to develop a national policy for dealing with such delicate matters. A statement issued in January by U.S. Catholic Conference general counsel Mark E. Chopko correctly observed that pedophilia affects "religious and secular groups alike." But the church is not at all like a secular group.

Newspapers and TV networks have reported cases sharing an unmistakable pattern--of accused priests recycled to new assignments, of victims and their parents held at arm's length by church officials. This seeming concealment triggered a chain reaction of lawsuits.

Between 1983 and 1986, 135 cases (most involving boys) were reported to church authorities. About 95 entered the criminal or civil arena. At least 17 priests received prison terms. Some received suspended sentences; others were never prosecuted. When plaintiff attorneys bargain silence for dollars, criminal charges are often never filed.

In January, 1985, at a pre-sentencing hearing for a priest in Boise, Idaho, Dr. Jay Fiereman, consulting psychiatrist at a monastic treatment center for Catholic clergymen in Jemez Springs, N.M., said that 200 pedophiles had been treated there in the previous 10 years.

The issue is not that a small percentage of U.S. priests are pedophiles, but that Catholic bishops and dioceses have not yet dealt with the problem effectively.

While the cost in church moral primacy cannot be calculated, a partial accounting of civil litigation losses can be. As of Jan. 1, actions in eight states involving 13 priests and one former seminarian had resulted in $19 million paid to 38 victims and their families. The figures do not include attorneys' fees, medical treatment for priests, increased clergy health insurance or secret payments to families without counsel.

In most litigated cases, dioceses are believed to have paid up to 15% of the total amounts, with insurance companies absorbing the bulk. As a result, liability coverage has evaporated, placing dioceses in a vulnerable self-insurance posture.

While the Los Angeles archdiocese's offer of therapeutic assistance to Aguilar's victims reflects pastoral sensitivity, a group of activists has engaged a local law firm, Hennigan and Mercer, to explore litigation in behalf of affected families.

The failure to commit Aguilar to a treatment facility and ensure his availability to legal authorities runs counter to recommendations in a 100-page internal church report.

The document, written in 1985, was addressed to the emergent problem. At the time, 30 cases were known to the authors--F. Ray Mouton Jr., a Louisiana attorney; the Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, a Dominican canon lawyer, and the late Rev. Michael Peterson, a psychiatrist who specialized in treatment of troubled clergy. They proposed immediate intervention with affected families, suspending the priest in question and placing him in a competent medical facility.

The confidential report, which predicted that dioceses could face $1 billion in claims, became a controversy within the church and was never adopted as policy. Instead, the authors have conducted clergy seminars in several dioceses on an ad-hoc basis. "Every bishop in America has faced these problems," Mouton claimed. "To adopt a policy is to admit that the problem exists, and bishops are afraid to do that. Chopko's statement was limited at best."

Los Angeles Times Articles