Catholic Sex Abuse Hits Home for Latinos

A number of Hispanic victims were included in the settlement of a massive sexual abuse case involving the Los Angeles archdiocese of the Catholic Church. One of the plaintiffs is joined by Father Allan Figueroa Deck to discuss how the sexual abuse scandals have affected the relationship between the church and Latino Catholics.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later on the program, we're going to hear news from South Africa and Sudan. Two reporters from those countries are on a U.S. visit, and they stopped by. We'll have an update on the Genarlow Wilson case, and we're going to learn about great new books for and about kids of color.

But first, this week a judge approved a settlement between the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Los Angeles and some 500 plaintiffs. The payout will be divided among the victims. It's the largest sex abuse settlement since the first major case against the Catholic Church in Boston began in 2002.

And it comes as settlement talks continue in a San Diego class action lawsuit, and new lawsuits have been filed in South Florida. Partly because so much attention has been focused on Boston, the face of the clergy-abuse victim has not generally been a minority one until now.

Many of the plaintiffs in the Los Angeles case are Hispanic. Latinos represent roughly a third of American Catholics. So we wondered how the sexual abuse scandal is resonating in the Hispanic community.

We're joined by Father Allan Figueroa Deck. He's worked extensively about religion and Latino culture, work that recently earned him an appointment to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He joins us now from his office in Orange, California.

We're also joined by Manny Vega, one of the 500 plaintiffs in the Los Angeles case. He joins us from KTYD in Santa Barbara. Thank you gentlemen both for being here.

Father ALLAN FIGUEROA DECK S.J. (Executive Director, Loyola Institute for Spirituality, Orange, California): Thank you for having us.

Mr. MANNY VEGA (Plaintiff in Los Angeles Case): Thanks for the invitation.

MARTIN: How old were you when the abuse started, and how long did it last?

Mr. VEGA: I was about 11 years old, which is when I was in the sixth grade, all the way through my freshman year - 11 through 14, about.

MARTIN: Did you tried to speak out? Did you ever get any sense at the time that something was wrong, or was it only when you became an adult that you realized that what had happened was wrong?

Mr. VEGA: To be quite honest with you, the way I was brought up, I mean, basically, and it's true. I think in the Latino culture is that you have a hierarchy, you have God, you have the priest and you have your parents. So for me to speak against the priest or say, or even think that something that he was doing was wrong was almost impossible.

So - no, I never said anything. It wasn't until I was applying for the Los Angeles Police Department that during one of the questionnaires that I was filling out, the question was, were you ever abused. And that's where it kind of came back. You know, it was like, wow. I was.

MARTIN: Oh my goodness. Wow. And when you did finally came forward, how did your family react?

Mr. VEGA: Well, thank God. I mean, I'm one of the very few who have had their parents who've stood with me - my brother, my wife supports me 100 percent. However, there's also been some riffs in the family who, some are still very Catholic and don't like to talk about or even be around me when it comes down to this.

MARTIN: What do you mean? What do you mean they don't want to be around you?

Mr. VEGA: Well, any time you talk about religion in a negative tone to somebody who truly believes, I mean, you're digging down deep. You're getting to the nerve of things. I mean, you're making them twitch. You know, not only was it the priest who sexually abused me, but then the organization also is largely to blame for what atrocities have taken place.

MARTIN: Father, if we could turn to you - tragically, and there have been many victims of sexual abuse who've recounted similar experiences with Mr. - as Mr. Vega has, and I just wondered if you felt that there's - in the Latino community, if there's an additional layer of reverence, silence around this issue for whatever reason?

Fr. DECK: What has made this whole sexual abuse scandal so sad - particularly I would say with the Latinos - is that, you know, it has been - a massive betrayal, really, a betrayal of a profound loyalty that so many very good Latino Catholics have toward the church.

And it's so deep. You know, the analogy I would give is, you know, if some very close member of your family - your uncle or your brother or your sister - does something really bad, maybe, you know, you try to deal with it within the family and hope that it doesn't become a public matter.

MARTIN: Father Deck, for many immigrants, not just Latinos, but that the church or places of worship are more than just places of worship. You know, they're cultural centers. They're places where you, you know, get the comfort of home, familiarity. Also, a place sometimes where you can get help in a way that you may not from the institutions that are set up to serve, you know, people who are already in the country.

I just wonder if the role of the church in the everyday life of the Latino community made, in some ways, the Latino community more vulnerable to abuse than perhaps others might be.

Fr. DECK: I think one could reasonably argue that way. When people, particularly immigrant people, and of course, more than half of the Latinos in our country are not immigrant, but - or they are the children of immigrant people frequently, those people are very vulnerable.

The church - the Catholic Church is the institution in this country that huge numbers, I'd venture to say the majority of the Latin American immigrant people can relate to. And the church is something that brings comfort and help to them in all kinds of dimensions, but particularly spiritually, as well as, I think, in terms of help with your immigration issues and others just like that and integrating into the American experience. So that's what makes this whole tragedy so horrendous.

MARTIN: Mr. Vega, I'd like to know how this experience, how it affected your faith.

Mr. VEGA: How has it affected my faith? I no longer believe in Jesus. I don't believe in Mary. I don't believe in the saints. I don't believe in the Bible. The only thing I believe in is in God. I believe that man is extremely fallible, man will create and manipulate, whatever man has to do to gain trust, to gain wealth, power - absolute power.

You know, the father's talking about the Latino people and how they feel, well, listen to me. I mean, I'm Latino. You have to understand that my experience started back when the conquistadores came from Spain to the Americas. They came with a sword in one hand and a cross in the other hand. And, you know, at that point, the indigenous people were told believe or die.

So my - what I call my programming in Catholicism started generations ago. And to have everything that I believed, then, just drop out, I mean, it's created a void. It's created a dark hole.

MARTIN: Aside from the settlement, is there anything else that would help you heal?

Mr. VEGA: Absolutely. Number one is I would like to see that Cardinal Roger Mahony resign from this position, as one person, who has, you know, covered up, you know, childhood sexual abuse by grown men.

Number two is I would love to have some sort of congressional hearing on this. This is an organization that has protected, has shuffled, you know, pedophile men around the United States and internationally and has hidden, you know, the truth.

Number three, I want an audience with the pope. At no time and place during my ordeal, during this journey, has any Catholic layperson extended a hand, hey, let me save your soul. In the Bibleā€¦

MARTIN: Even though you say you don't believe anymore, you still would like to meet with the pope?

Mr. VEGA: Absolutely. I think he needs to know.

MARTIN: Father Deck, when you hear this, I wanted to ask if you were concerned that given what you've heard and given the way this affected Mr. Vega, that this will challenge the faith of the community overall.

Rev. DECK: This is a terrible challenge. And there will be people who, for various reasons, are going to move away. But there is, I think, a remarkable ability on the part of people to come face to face with the reality of sin and evil to realize that it's only the power of God, ultimately, that saves us. But if we're going to be consistent with our faith, we continue to believe and to hope - to hope in what God can do.

MARTIN: Mr. Vega, how does this strike you?

Mr. VEGA: Point blank. I mean, I'm sorry but I have to disagree with the father. You have authority figures within our communities that are hiding pedophiles. I mean, when the State of California released Megan's Law, I mean, people couldn't run fast enough to the computer and burn up the keyboard to find out what type of pedophile was in their neighborhood. And when they found out, it was like a Frankenstein movie where there were pitchforks and torches to get these people out of their neighborhoods, you know?

And here we have an institution that's been around for 2,000 years - an institution that's been in our country since the beginning of our country, and these guys are shuffling pedophiles. You need to understand, me as a victim and also as a police officer who has investigated sexual abuse cases with children, I mean, the damage that is done, the atrocities - I mean, how can an adult do all these horrendous things? How can these people be allowed to still be in our community?

MARTIN: Father, I know that you have to go, so a final question to you. I understand you'll soon be working for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, leading the Office of Cultural Diversity. What should church leaders do to make sure that - is there anything they can do to meet Mr. Vega where he is, to -and to be sure that there are no more Mr. Vegas and to offer healing?

Rev. DECK: Right now, I think it's fair to say that there is no organization in the country that has in place more safeguards to avoid this kind of thing occurring again. But that doesn't mean that our guard should be put down, that there isn't more that can't be done, that there aren't other issues and inconsistencies and a more need for transparency in the workings of the church. I will try to be a voice for that in the church. And all we can do is move on from here and try to do much, much better.

MARTIN: We're going to have to leave it there. Father Allan Figueroa Deck is the president of the Loyola Institute of Spirituality. He will soon be director of the Office of Cultural Diversity in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Manny Vega was a plaintiff in the clergy sex-abuse case just settled by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He is now a police officer in Oxnard, California. He joined us from KTYD in Santa Barbara.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us. I know it was a difficult conversation, and I appreciate it.

Rev. DECK: Thank you very much.

Mr. VEGA: Thank you.

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