Firing Defended by O.C. Catholics

Times Staff Writer

Parishioners at a Roman Catholic church in Brea defended the church’s zero-tolerance policy for sexual misconduct by priests or lay workers, even though it led to the firing of their longtime choir director.

The majority of those interviewed Sunday said John Michael Catanzaro’s conviction 18 years ago for lewd conduct with a minor fell within the guidelines of the 2-year-old policy.

Some were angered by the fact that Catanzaro was allowed to continue as choir director in three North County parishes even after church officials in April became aware of the conviction.


Auxiliary Bishop Jaime Soto fired Catanzaro on Tuesday after a reporter began asking questions about the conviction, which was discovered because of now-mandatory fingerprinting of diocesan employees.

“If a person has been found guilty of [sexual] abuse, he should be let go right away,” said Pete Estrada, who has been attending Mass at St. Angela Merici Church in Brea for seven years. “But if the paper hadn’t brought it up, nothing would have happened.”

Meanwhile, over the weekend, a popular Santa Ana priest spoke to parishioners for the first time about a possible FBI investigation into child pornography allegations against him.

Father Cesar Salazar told parishioners attending Masses Saturday and Sunday at St. Joseph Church -- a parish with an elementary school on its grounds -- that Bishop Tod D. Brown has restricted Salazar’s ministry to adults, while the diocesan Sexual Misconduct Oversight and Review Board looks into the case.

Parishioners at St. Angela Merici in Brea were told during Sunday Masses that Catanzaro was being relieved of his duties after 16 years. Catanzaro also worked at St. Martin de Porres Church in Yorba Linda and St. Joseph Church in Placentia.

Some of those hearing news of the choir director’s conviction were shocked, many chose not to comment, and one man supported Catanzaro while questioning the zero-tolerance policy, under which any credible allegation of sexual abuse will result in immediate dismissal of any priest or lay employee.

“That’s terrible that this would happen to such a nice man,” said Mario Martinez, 40. “They said this happened two decades ago, when he was a young man. He’s changed his ways and turned his life around since then. I’m sure we all did things earlier in life that we regret. It’s beautiful what he’s done for us, and we’re going to miss him.”

Michele Feliz, 49, said she was struggling with the news that Catanzaro is leaving the Brea church. But she said she nonetheless supported diocesan officials and the zero-tolerance policy.

“In the end, we have to protect the children,” Feliz said.

In 2001, a former church employee found child pornography on a laptop computer formerly owned by Salazar, and reported this to the FBI when church officials seemed hesitant to act on the discovery. Santa Ana police conducted an investigation that included interviews with witnesses and a computer expert, but the Orange County district attorney’s office declined to prosecute, saying there was a lack of evidence. Salazar said Sunday that he recently met with FBI officials to discuss whether federal charges of possessing child pornography might be brought against him.

“The whole experience has been trying and humbling,” Salazar said in a prepared statement he read to parishioners. “I apologize for whatever pain I may have caused you. If I have hurt your trust in me and in the priesthood, I am sorry. I hope it is possible for me to continue to minister among you. And I hope you can be confident that I am not a threat to your children.”

Salazar is one of two priests assigned to St. Joseph Church, a Santa Ana parish with 2,000 families. Shirl Giacomi, chancellor and diocesan spokeswoman, attended weekend Masses to field questions. She said about 25 to 30 parishioners spoke with her, most supporting Salazar and a few asking for more details about the investigation.