L.A. bishop was lauded as an activist but tainted by accusation
Juan Arzube, a Catholic bishop who was known as an advocate of Mexican American Catholics in Los Angeles and a social activist on their behalf, has died. He was 89.
Arzube died Dec. 25, according to Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the Los Angeles archdiocese. The cause of death was not given. He had been in failing health for several years and had been a resident of Nazareth House, a nursing facility in West Los Angeles, since 2002.
A clergyman for 53 years, Arzube fell under suspicion in 2003 when he was accused of molesting an 11-year-old boy years earlier. He denied the charges, but his case was part of the record-breaking settlement the archdiocese reached with hundreds of plaintiffs last summer.
As auxiliary bishop to then-Archbishop Timothy Manning starting in 1971, Arzube became the highest-ranking Latino in the Los Angeles Roman Catholic hierarchy. At that time, he was one of only a few Latino bishops in the country.
He served on a number of committees dealing with Spanish-speaking Catholics and on the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and others. He was appointed episcopal vicar for Spanish-speaking Catholics in 1973. From 1986 until he retired in 1993, Arzube oversaw the San Gabriel pastoral region of the archdiocese.
As bishop he also helped launch the United Neighborhoods Organization, known as UNO, a faith-based group of community organizers who worked in East Los Angeles with church members. The group, formed in 1976, regularly confronted government, police and business leaders to take action on issues of public safety, schools, housing conditions and other community issues.
“Bishop Arzube was strong, supportive and courageous in the work he did in East L.A.,” said Ernie Cortes, lead organizer for UNO. “He wanted to develop leadership in the East L.A. community.”
Arzube was stationed at a number of parishes in Los Angeles, working primarily with the Mexican American communities. During his three years as administrator of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Mission in El Monte, the church offered English-language classes, driving instruction, sewing classes and other instruction.
“The Mexican turns to the priest more than the Anglo does, for many things,” Arzube said in a 1971 interview with The Times. “He is more approachable.”
At his funeral, held in a chapel at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City on New Year’s Eve, Arzube was praised by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, who presided at the service.
“His many ministry initiatives for the good of people will continue to live and flourish for years to come,” Mahony said, according to an obituary of Arzube this week in the Tidings, the Catholic diocese newspaper.
Asked why the funeral was held at the cemetery rather than the cathedral as is typical for a bishop, Tamberg answered in an e-mail that “family and friends flew in from out of the country and out of town. Holy Cross is near LAX.”
Entombment was in the mausoleum at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles, according to the Tidings obituary.
Arzube’s career as a clergyman came into question when he was accused of sexually molesting a boy in 1975 and ’76, while he was pastor of St. Alphonsus Catholic Church in East Los Angeles.
“There was never an admission of guilt by Bishop Arzube. There was denial of any and all wrongdoing,” said the bishop’s lawyer, Sylvan Philip Daroca III, in an interview with The Times on Thursday.
The case was included in the $660-million settlement last July by the archdiocese, according to Daroca and Anthony M. De Marco, a lawyer for the plaintiff in Arzube’s case. The payout was distributed among 508 people who had accused priests of sexual abuse.
Arzube’s years at St. Alphonsus were troubled in other ways as well. He was pastor there from 1971 to 1981; during that time, two other priests stationed at the parish with him were also accused of sexually molesting minors.
“Assignment histories show that several molester priests were closely associated with Arzube,” said De Marco, who took Arzube’s deposition in 2006 while investigating his client’s case.
“Several times in his deposition, Arzube acknowledged taking altar boys to his bedroom to train them,” said De Marco. “That is how Arzube abused him,” De Marco said of his client.
“I believe that Arzube communicated an acceptance of that conduct to other priests,” De Marco said.
Daroca, Arzube’s attorney, said, “I don’t have a recollection of that testimony at this time.”
Asked about the molestation charge brought against Arzube, UNO’s Cortes said he had not been aware of it.
Arzube was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, on June 1, 1918. He came to the United States to study civil engineering and earned a bachelor’s degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., in 1942. He returned to Ecuador and worked as a civil engineer for two years.
He then immigrated to the U.S. and settled in Los Angeles, where he worked in Hollywood, dubbing Spanish voices in American films. He had a small, uncredited role in “The Razor’s Edge,” a 1946 film adapted from the novel by W. Somerset Maugham.
After going on a religious retreat, the Tidings reported in its obituary, Arzube enrolled in St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo and was ordained a priest in 1954, when he was 36.