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'It's as if no one wants to face what happened,' one father said. : Church, Families Deal With Child Sex Abuse by Priests

June 20, 1988|MARITA HERNANDEZ and JOHN DART | Times Staff Writers

Several months have passed since scandal rocked the small Eastside Catholic parish. "Father Nick," the fugitive priest charged with sexually molesting at least 10 altar boys at the church and at another parish, is seldom mentioned.

At Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, nestled in the foothills of predominantly Latino El Sereno, parishioners still fill Sunday Masses celebrated in Spanish, and a new roster of altar boys assists at the services.

Parish life has returned to normal, both at Guadalupe and at the second church, St. Agatha's, a heavily Latino parish in South-Central Los Angeles.

Have Not Forgotten

Only the families most directly affected still struggle for normalcy. They haven't forgotten Father Nicolas Aguilar Rivera. They trusted the visiting priest from Mexico with their children and even welcomed him into their homes. Now they worry about the effect of the alleged molestation on the boys.

Some parents have been criticized by fellow parishioners who have accused them of blowing the situation out of proportion. There have been insinuations that the boys may have lied about what happened.

Police investigators said 26 boys were molested by the priest. The district attorney's office filed formal charges against him in 10 of the cases.

Church leaders have minimized the problem, some parents say, and have not done enough to prevent a recurrence. "It's as if no one wants to face what happened," the father of two of the alleged victims said.

In the aftermath of the incident, which also has raised questions by police about the church's handling of the case, the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese has improved procedures for reporting molestation cases to authorities.

Low-Keyed Response

Otherwise, little has changed. Archdiocesan leaders say it is best to handle such matters quietly, both for the sake of the families involved and to avoid making more of the problem than exists.

"My greatest concerns are priests (in general), not this very tiny, tiny percentage involved in any difficulty like this," said Los Angeles Archbishop Roger M. Mahony in an interview. He described the 1,316 diocesan, religious order and visiting priests here as "upstanding, dedicated, committed men." He said priests who experience difficulties are commonly beset by other problems such as stress, burnout, depression and alcoholism.

Mahony noted that in the last decade, fewer than one priest per year in the archdiocese has been accused of child molestation. Four priests and one religious order brother have been criminally charged or had civil lawsuits filed against them. In three or four other cases, the priests denied the accusations and no formal charges were made.

At the same time, Mahony said that, in addition to the archdiocese's customary psychological screening of candidates for its seminary, he has sought--by removing stigmas associated with therapy--to encourage troubled priests to seek counseling.

Nevertheless, the archdiocese is faced with a complication in that the majority of priests--those from religious orders and those visiting from other areas--serve here on the recommendation of their superiors and are not screened by archdiocesan psychologists.

In recent years, as reports of child molestation spread across all segments of U.S. society and public attention grew accordingly, the church has found itself no more immune to the problem than other trusted institutions.

Numerous lawsuits throughout the country have charged that the church has ignored and tried to cover up the problem, in some instances failing to notify authorities, transferring molesting priests to other parishes and ignoring parental complaints. For the first time, a statement on behalf of U.S. Catholic bishops was issued this year expressing their concern over pedophilia, the abnormal sexual desire of adults for children.

While the archdiocese has no written policy for dealing with the problem of child-molesting priests, Mahony said that the church's practice is "to respond to hurting people as best we can and as quickly as we can."

This usually involves immediately removing a priest from an assignment involving children and offering psychological services to the priest and to the victims.

In the Aguilar case, church officials confronted the priest with the accusations and removed him from his duties on a weekend--two days before contacting police authorities. Police investigators criticized the church for the delay, which they said allowed the priest to evade arrest. Church officials countered that the police phone number they had been given for reporting such incidents was not operating on weekends.

Flight to Mexico

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