How A SoCal Priest Preyed On Two Brothers And Destroyed An Immigrant Family

Manuel Barragan, 42, at his home in Hesperia. Barragan was molested by a priest beginning at age 11 in Santa Paula. (Photo by Aaron Schrank/LAist)

As federal prosecutors begin a first-ever investigation into child sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Pennsylvania, there's pressure mounting in Southern California to dig deeper into the local church's handling of abusive clergy.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice sent subpoenas to several Pennsylvania dioceses, requesting internal church documents. The federal probe comes months after a state grand jury report detailed credible allegations by more than 1,000 victims against over 300 priests.

The groundbreaking Pennsylvania report revealed how church officials covered up abuse for decades, kept known predator priests in ministry and transferred them from parish to parish. It's a pattern familiar to those who've studied personnel files released by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and surrounding Catholic jurisdictions, where abusers were routinely shuffled without notice into immigrant churches.

HOW A PREDATORY PRIEST WAS MOVED TO LA

Carlos Rodriguez was ordained into the priesthood as a member of the Vincentian religious order in 1986. A year into his ministry, he confessed to abusing a child he met at a South Los Angeles church, according to court documents. The victim reported the incident to police, but church officials swiftly sent Rodriguez to St. Luke Institute in Maryland, a church-run facility known for treating accused pedophile priests. Then, they brought Rodriguez back and assigned him to minister to Spanish-speaking families around Santa Barbara in the Archdiocese of L.A.'s Office of Family Life.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Santa Paula, where Manuel Barragan was raised. (Photo courtesy Our Lady of Guadalupe Church)

That's where Manuel Barragan met "Father Carlos" more than 30 years ago.

"He put on that suit to portray himself as a man of God, and he was an imposter," said Barragan, in an interview with KPCC/LAist at his home in Hesperia. "He was a fake dude trying to get into little boys' and little girls' pants, and that's what he did."

Barragan attended Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Santa Paula with his parents, devoted Catholic immigrants from Mexico who worked picking lemons, avocados and oranges.

Barragan's parents met Rodriguez through weekend marriage counseling retreats and invited him into their family, even giving him a key. Barragan says Rodriguez regularly participated in family meetings and attended church with them. Meanwhile, for years, Rodriguez sexually molested Barragan and his older brother.

Barragan recalled being woken up in his bunk bed by the priest's abuse, and being assaulted on several camping trips.

"I'm 42 years old now, but let's rewind the tape," said Barragan. "Let me be 11 years old really quick, and my parents are seeking counseling through the church because they're part of the faithful. There's trust here."

Barragan says he first reported the abuse to his region's bishop, during confession. The bishop told him to pray about it, but took no action, Barragan said. It would be a decade before he told anyone else about Father Carlos.

"It was so taboo to even speak about. It was like an unspeakable thing that could have happened," Barragan said. "So the whole secrecy — keeping it myself, I didn't see any other way to be."

This police booking mug from the Los Angeles police department shows former Catholic priest Carlos Rene Rodriguez, 46, after he was arrested at his home in the City of Commerce, California, in September 2002. (Photo via the Associated Press)

THE 'GEOGRAPHIC SOLUTION'

The Rodriguez case is one disturbing example of a practice used by Catholic leaders: shuffling abusers from place to place, hiding scandals once they were discovered. It's what Patrick Wall calls the "geographic solution." The former Catholic priest coined the term while advocating for victims of clergy child sexual abuse in Los Angeles in 2002.

"It was clear they were specifically moving people in from offshore as well as moving people outside of L.A. to get guys out of the jurisdiction, because they knew they had legal problems," said Wall.

At age 26, Wall was a young monk in Minnesota, hired to take over a string of parishes whose priests faced abuse allegations.

"My abbot ordered me to follow these six guys, and they were all child molesters," Wall said.

He now lives in Dana Point and works as a legal advocate with Jeff Anderson and Associates, a firm that exclusively represents survivors of childhood sexual assault. Wall's insider knowledge of the Catholic Church's personnel management practices and canon law helped him expose patterns of church cover-up for court cases.

One example: using the official annual Catholic directory to plot priest's movements.

Patrick Wall, right, joined attorney Jeff Anderson, left, and others at a recent Los Angeles press event announcing a lawsuit against California's bishops. (Photo by Aaron Schrank/LAist)

"It's the most boring document in the world, but it plots out where every priest is every year," said Wall. "It proved to be absolutely contradictory to everything [church leaders] were saying publicly."

Wall said immigrant parishes around Los Angeles have been particularly vulnerable because officials counted on parishioners to keep quiet about abuse, whether because of language barriers, fear that their status as unauthorized immigrants would be disclosed or deference to clergy.

He believes immigrant communities haven't been properly warned about predatory priests in the church.

"We have such an inflow of immigrants into California, which makes California great," Wall said. "But they're not aware of the danger that's been there, and the current danger that's there."

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles acknowledged 49 new perpetrators as late as 2013. There are three priests under investigation for child sexual abuse in the greater Los Angeles area this year alone.

'PICTURES OF HIM ON THE WALL'

Manuel Barragan says he self-medicated for 10 years to forget the sexual abuse, with weed, speed and booze. He ran with gangs. When he had intimacy issues with his girlfriend, Barragan's parents referred him to the Worldwide Marriage Encounter, the same Catholic couples program where they had met Father Carlos. His trauma returned.

"I told myself, my parents need to know what's going on," said Barragan. "They need to know what happened to us when we were smaller, because all that stuff came up, because I was there, and I was remembering. So when I came home, I sat them down and I told them Father Carlos had been molesting us. Not just me, but my brother. And my parents broke down. I found myself comforting them."

His parents reported the abuse to their Santa Paula church, but Barragan says his family never recovered.

"I would come into my parents' house and I would see pictures of this guy on the wall," he said. "They are put on the high pedestal, like, 'This is God,' this is a man of God who has blessed our family. I was devastated. Like, how is this guy a part of this family? Don't you see what he did to us?"

Three years later, the L.A. Archdiocese's substance abuse program knocked on Barragan's door to offer assistance. He checked into a rehab program and began therapy.

This was 2002, and California lawmakers had just created a one-year legal window removing the statute-of-limitations laws for child sex abuse victims to sue. Barragan joined a class-action lawsuit against the archdiocese that resulted in a $660 million settlement in 2007 involving more than 500 cases of abuse.

THE CLERGY FILES

During the one-year legal window, more than 700 abuses cases were filed against the L.A. Archdiocese and various other Catholic entities. That litigation led to massive document disclosures in 2013.

"At the point of sword and court orders, we were able to force the local church to turn over for public release the personnel files of so many of the priests that had been accused of molesting kids," said Tony DeMarco, who represented Barragan and hundreds more in the suit. Not many other regions around the country have had that."

Church documents released on Carlos Rodriguez detailed his crimes against children, as well as efforts by the Vincentian order and L.A. Archdiocese officials to hide his abuse. In a request to exit the priesthood penned in 1996, Rodriguez described feeling like a "fugitive" when he was shuffled off to his treatment in Maryland.

In a letter to Pope John Paul II the following year, Rodriguez's Vincentian superior acknowledged spending more than $150,000 for treatment, legal fees and job retraining on Rodriguez throughout his abusive priesthood.

The now-public church documents tell a string of disturbing stories similar to Father Carlos'.

"You see blatant statements as to there is no need to take corrective action because folks who were undocumented won't report," said Demarco. "'They won't do anything.' That's in some of these files."

In one case, Father Peter Garcia admitted to therapists he abused more than 20 boys during his time as a priest. Most of his victims were living in the country illegally, and the priest threatened at least one with deportation to keep him quiet.

Rev. Fernando Lopez pleaded guilty to repeated sexual violence on a minor in Italy in 2000. The Archdiocese of San Bernardino turned him away, but the Archdiocese of L.A. accepted his application and assigned him to a poor, Spanish-speaking parish where he molested at least three more children, according to the church documents.

When Father Michael Baker was accused of molesting children, Cardinal Roger Mahony, the former Los Angeles archbishop, moved him to Mexico for five years to avoid prosecution. Mahony then brought him back to L.A., where Baker molested more kids. Court documents show Baker informed Mahony he'd molested two unauthorized immigrant youths, and he was still kept on and protected.


DATABASE: Search L.A. Archdiocese priest personnel files >>


L.A. Archbishop Jose Gomez acknowledged the mishandling of abuse under Mahony's previous leadership, and stripped his predecessor of his public duties in 2013. Mahony, who is still a priest in good standing living in a North Hollywood parish, was once celebrated as a defender of immigrant rights.

Cardinal Roger Mahony leads Christmas mass at The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels December 25, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Eric Thayer/Getty Images)

Mahony responded to Gomez's public rebuke in a blog post, insisting he and other Catholic leaders did their best to deal with abuse.

"Unfortunately, I cannot return now to the 1980s and reverse actions and decisions made then," Mahony wrote. "But when I retired as the active Archbishop, I handed over to you an Archdiocese that was second to none in protecting children and youth."

Last month, a group called Clean the Church protested outside St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church, where Mahony lives. They called for the former archbishop to resign as cardinal, and California's attorney general to launch a criminal investigation into his actions.

THE CHURCH RESPONSE

The Pennsylvania grand jury report revealed evidence of coverup not previously admitted by Catholic officials, including that then-Pittsburgh bishop Donald Wuerl shipped an abusive priest named Ernest Paone to L.A. to hide him from authorities and accusers. Cardinal Wuerl resigned as Washington, D.C. archbishop this month.

The L.A. Archdiocese and other local Catholic leaders say they've adopted "zero tolerance" abuse policies, launched awareness programs, offered support to victims, and released the names of credibly accused priests.

The L.A. Archdiocese's Office of Safeguard the Children has trained more than 300,000 adults since 2004, according to the church.

"These measures have been effective," said Steve Pehanich, spokesman for California's Catholic bishops. "Allegations of abuse have been rare since 2003, responded to and uniformly reported, but we know we can never be complacent."

One reason cases have been rare is the statute of limitations law prevents victims from being able to sue. Survivors and their lawyers were hopeful when California lawmakers passed legislation this year to open the door to new child sex abuse lawsuits, but Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it earlier this month.

Saint Monica's Catholic Church in Santa Monica. (Photo by Theodore Wood via Flickr Creative Commons)

THE LATINO CHURCH

Many Latino Catholics view the current sex abuse crisis differently than the rest of the church, says Cecilia Gonzalez-Andrieu, a theologian with Loyola Marymount University. "And that's principally because the Latino Church has a need of the church to defend our human rights," she said.

Vulnerable populations are victimized by many institutions, but Gonzalez-Andrieu said the church shouldn't be one of them.

"Those very same people are not able to report bosses who are exploiting them," Gonzalez-Andrieu said. "They're not able to report in their schools. Latina women who can't report their husbands and their boyfriends."

She says Latino Catholics depend on the church's moral authority and social services to deal with issues like immigration, poverty and health care.

"The sex abuse scandal, which is old, which has been going on for such a long time, has taken all of the air out of anything else we need to be talking about," Gonzalez-Andrieu said.

Gonzalez-Andrieu helps train aspiring priests at LMU, and says the church must root out those who care more about power than serving people.

"We need to deal with that proactively," she said. "Towards the future, towards changing everything that we do. It will influence the types of people that are in our parish structures as leaders, it will influence the types of priests that we will have."

A SURVIVOR SEEKS ACCOUNTABILITY

As survivors and advocates in California call for a statewide investigation into clergy sex abuse and sue California's bishops for civil conspiracy and public nuisance, Manuel Barragan feels their frustration.

"There has to be accountability," Barragan said. "There has to be some kind of a warning system for the community. Let's let these people know what kind of church leaders they got."

Father Carlos Rodriguez pleaded guilty to molesting Barragan and went to prison for four years.The defrocked priest was discovered ministering at an unsanctioned church in South Los Angeles two years ago.

He's a 62-year-old registered sex offender now living in Bakersfield, where KPCC/LAist attempted to reach him for comment. He did not respond.

Barragan no longer identifies as Catholic, he said. Nor does he see himself as a victim, but rather as a survivor following years of addiction treatment and talk therapy. Barragan said he put in a lot of work over the years to be able to face his trauma and speak openly about it. He wishes the Catholic Church would do the same.

"Victims need help. How are we going to deal with it?" Barragan said. "We're just going to deny it? Like a bunch of drug addicts, in denial about the problem? Let's get the whole institution into treatment. Let's get some therapy for the higher ups."

Aaron Schrank covers religion, international affairs and the Southern California diaspora under a grant from the Luce Foundation.


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