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Victim says he hopes settlement brings peace

The L.A. firefighter says he wants to look forward now, years after he was abused by a priest in Silver Lake.

July 15, 2007|Joe Mozingo | Times Staff Writer

Ten years ago, Anthony Almeida sat on his bed, loaded a single bullet into a Glock .45 and put the barrel in his mouth -- exhausted by the storm of anger, distrust and isolation his life had become.

Almeida was a strong, barrel-chested Los Angeles firefighter. But he couldn't relate to people. He was jealous of his wife, combative at work, distant with his children.

Watching his daughter and son turn the age he was when Father Clinton Hagenbach began to molest him in the rectory of St. Teresa of Avila in Silver Lake dredged up a chaos of emotions he had tamped down for more than 20 years.

Almeida put the gun down that day. But he careened through the following years, divorcing his second wife, locking himself in his room, sometimes drinking 18 beers a day.

Now he hopes that Saturday's settlement of the priest abuse case will bring him some kind of concord. "Once I sign, there will be some peace," he said. "It'll be nice to get this behind me and move forward."

Almeida, 44, was gearing up with mixed emotions to testify in the first civil trial against the Los Angeles Archdiocese on allegations that it allowed 30 years of sexual abuse by members of the clergy.

He wanted to tell his story in detail, to show the horrific reality that sometimes gets buried behind the word "abuse."

But he was scared. When the archdiocese took his deposition in May, his blood pressure shot up to 190 over 135, and he had to go on leave from work.

He is a bit relieved that the archdiocese settled, avoiding a trial. He doesn't know how much money he will get, but given the abuse he endured, it is likely to be larger than the average payout of $1.3 million, his attorney John Manly said.

Almeida grew up with eight siblings in a small bungalow in Silver Lake. When he was 7 years old, his oldest brother was killed in Vietnam. His father, a tailor at Bullocks Wilshire department store, grew distant.

"We never did Little League or went camping or anything like that," he said.

Almeida's mother was a devout Catholic and pushed him to become an altar boy. He went through the motions until 1974, when Hagenbach arrived as an associate pastor.

"Hagenbach came along and all of the sudden everything was fun," he said. "The parishioners loved him, my mom loved him."

Hagenbach started taking the altar boys out every weekend to get ice cream, to ride go-carts, to camp in the mountains. He bought Almeida, 12 at the time, a brand new ten-speed -- something his parents never could have afforded.

"I guess you could say he became my dad," Almeida said.

In the rectory, Hagenbach started touching him. It was confusing. Almeida had no idea what to do.

The priest persisted. He taught Almeida to drive and would fondle him while doing so.

Hagenbach began to give the altar boys pornography and alcohol. Almeida said the pastor in the church was often drunk and seemed to overlook what was happening.

Almeida kept going back to see Hagenbach. He was confused and repulsed by the fondling, but the priest showered him with attention and gifts that he never had before. When Almeida was 13, Hagenbach bought him a brand new Yamaha mono-shock motorcycle.

With the attention came increasing abuse, including oral copulation on a trip to Lake Arrowhead. Then, Hagenbach pinned Almeida down on Hagenbach's bed in the rectory and raped the boy as he cried and bled.

The years after that are blurred in Almeida's mind. He remembers having a crush on a girl, and when she saw him in church, he flushed with embarrassment. He didn't know why.

This was not a subject anyone talked about, and Almeida wasn't about to tell anyone. He tried not to think about it.

Eventually he attended another church and tried to forget what had happened. He went to college and then joined the Los Angeles Fire Department. Hagenbach died in 1987.

Almeida's life was always turbulent, but only when his second marriage was ending in the late 1990s did he wonder if the abuse was part of the cause.

"I always thought my wives and girlfriends were cheating on me. I'd always accuse them until it just drove them nuts and they'd just leave me."

And he could never get close to his four children. "I love my kids, but I've never been there for them," Almeida said. "I don't know why. I guess for one thing I don't want people thinking I'm a pedophile. Since my divorce, they've never spent the night at my house."

At work, Almeida got into arguments and spats. He has been in therapy for years. As part of that, he once approached the pastor at St. Teresa and told him what had happened. The priest's response: "I always thought something was going on."

Almeida blames high-level archdiocese officials for allowing the abuse to go on for years. Hagenbach was transferred six times over 25 years, a sure sign that there were complaints about him, Almeida said.

"I blame them," he said. "This could have all been stopped."

joe.mozingo@latimes.com

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