Victim Begins Vigil at Cathedral

Times Staff Writers

The crowds at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels on Palm Sunday mostly ignored him. The weather was threatening to soak him.

That didn't deter Manuel Vega from beginning what promises to be a lonely eight-day vigil and fast to protest how the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has responded to the allegations of sexual abuse by some of its priests. The 36-year-old Oxnard police officer and Navy reservist, who has said he was abused by a priest when he was a boy, wants to use the holiest week of the Christian calendar as a backdrop.

"What's one week out of my life?" Vega asked. "This is something I feel I need to do for the other victims. I don't care if it rains. It's felt like it was raining inside here ever since I was abused," he added while tapping his heart.

Vega -- along with other victims, prosecutors and plaintiffs' attorneys -- say Cardinal Roger M. Mahony's promises of openness and ministry to sexual abuse victims haven't matched his actions.

Specifically, Vega wants Mahony to reconsider his decision not to release internal files on priests accused of abuse to prosecutors and plaintiffs' attorneys. The cardinal has said those documents are constitutionally protected from public disclosure because they involve confidential communications between priests and their superiors.

Thousands of people attended services at the downtown cathedral, but most paid little heed to Vega and the four other protesters, including his parents, who joined him.. For most of the day, they held a giant banner that read: "Innocence is a child's right. Sexual abuse is not!"

One church usher dashed up to Vega to scold him for daring to protest the church on Palm Sunday. Another man, who gave his name only as Ralph, screamed, "How dare you mock the house of God!"

But there were also a few people who walked by and simply said, "Thank you." Robert Srampical, 59, of South Pasadena approached Vega to ask a few questions. "If there is a reason for them to be here doing this, it should be brought to notice," Srampical said. "It shouldn't be hidden."

Word of Vega's vigil has also spread among the local network of sexual abuse victims, many of whom plan to join him for parts of the week. State Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana) said he will stand in solidarity with Vega on Tuesday.

Church officials asked Vega not to protest on the cathedral plaza, but invited him to use the cafeteria and restrooms at the church, said Tod Tamberg, the archdiocese's spokesman.

Vega said he was grateful for the offer, but plans to spend the next week sitting or standing on the sidewalk outside the entrance to the plaza on Temple Street. He said he brought a rain suit, as well as some bread in case he begins feeling ill. He's worried less about the weather and more about the cathedral's bells that he fears may ring loudly throughout the night.

Vega alleged in May in a class-action lawsuit against the archdiocese that he and nine others were sexually abused by Father Fidencio Silva at an Oxnard parish from 1979 to 1986. Silva is a priest from the Missionary of the Holy Spirit order, and was last seen in Mexico in 2002. The priest was charged last month by Ventura County authorities with 25 felony counts of child molestation.

Since filing the suit, Vega has become one of California's most effective victims' rights advocates, largely because of his background.

Married and the father of two, Vega served in the Marine Corps for 8 1/2 years and won the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for Heroism, the service's highest peacetime award. He was also named police officer of the year in Oxnard in 2000.

His lobbying efforts helped win the unanimous passage of two laws that ease statute of limitations problems for victims of sexual abuse.

Vega said one key day of his vigil will be today, when priests from the archdiocese's 290 parishes come to the cathedral to have Mahony bless oils that will be used for church ceremonies in the next year.

"I would love the priests to join me," he said. "This is an opportunity to start winning back the church. I was born a Catholic, I'll die a Catholic and I'm not interested in switching religions."

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