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L.A.-area bishop, father of two, resigns

From humble beginnings in southwest Mexico, Gabino Zavala entered the priesthood and embarked on a remarkable journey that landed him squarely in the corner offices of the nation’s largest Roman Catholic archdiocese.

An auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, he oversaw the church’s vast San Gabriel region, a diverse community considered vital to the future of the church. Then, from his pulpit, he became a forceful champion for social and economic justice.

Popular and approachable, Zavala was widely known by his first name. To many, that sensibility made the Vatican’s announcement Wednesday unthinkable: For more than a decade, Zavala had harbored a dark secret. He is the father, church officials said, of two children and had resigned his post.

Zavala’s fatherhood, a violation of canon laws of celibacy for priests, was the first controversy to rock the local church during the tenure of Archbishop Jose Gomez, who succeeded Roger Mahony last year. Gomez responded with a blunt letter to his flock Wednesday announcing the resignation, which elicited shock, despair and, among some, a palpable sense of betrayal.

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“He is the father of two minor teenage children, who live with their mother in another state,” the letter said. “Let us pray for all those impacted by this situation and for each other.”

Asked whether Zavala was involved in the children’s lives, and why the information suddenly surfaced after so many years, archdiocese spokesman Tod M. Tamberg said: “Those are questions for Bishop Zavala to answer.”

Tamberg said the church, which learned of the situation in December but had to wait for the Vatican to announce the resignation, had investigated the finances of Zavala’s office and confirmed that there was no misuse of church money to support the children. Zavala, despite his prominence, earns a relatively modest priest’s salary, and the archdiocese has offered financial support to help pay for college for the children.

Zavala’s resignation is likely to spark renewed debate over the ecclesiastical laws of celibacy. The earliest popes -- St. Peter himself, under some interpretations -- were married men and fathers. Later, in the 4th century, church officials decided that men who were not celibate “shall be deprived of the honor of the clerical life.”

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The idea was to mimic the sacrificing, chaste life of Jesus -- for priests to be married, in a sense, to the church. But in recent years, hundreds of theologians have argued that the rules are dated and needlessly restrictive.

“It’s self-evident: celibacy does not work,” said Father Richard McBrien, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. Younger priests influenced by conservative Vatican administrators in recent years “think celibacy is the crown jewel of the priesthood,” he said. “That’s nonsense.”

A.W. Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine priest and retired psychotherapist in La Jolla, said there was “no question” that Zavala’s case raises questions about celibacy standards, and he said he hoped it would spark an overdue review. “I want it discussed openly and honestly,” he said.

The Vatican did not immediately name Zavala’s successor. Gomez declined to be interviewed, and the church declined to disclose further details.

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Zavala, who is no longer in ministry but remains a priest and bishop, could not be reached for comment. The voice mail on his cellphone was full, and no one answered the door of his home in the Hacienda Heights foothills.

Zavala, 60, was raised in Los Angeles and ordained in 1977. He had overseen the San Gabriel region since 1994. One of the archdiocese’s five area pastoral regions, San Gabriel is home to 66 parishes, 13 high schools and hundreds of thousands of the area’s 5 million Catholics.

Zavala’s work resonated far beyond Southern California. He served as the president of Pax Christi USA, an influential group that lobbies against war and other violence; was a member of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; and led efforts to foster cultural and ethnic diversity in the church, especially among fellow Latinos. He argued passionately for an end to capital punishment and, like many priests, for immigration reform and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

But he stepped deeper into the arena of social justice than many of his peers -- resigning from a national gay and lesbian ministries association, for instance, after the Vatican tightened controls over how the church reaches out to homosexuals. And amid grumbling from some corners that the church has remained silent as initiatives have been launched across the nation to limit or eliminate labor unions, Zavala struck out on his own, decrying those efforts as “a moral failure that undermines values at the heart of our democracy.”

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“The sad reality,” he wrote in one missive, “is that many of the same CEOs who eviscerate workers’ rights have awarded themselves generous bonuses. Elected officials who rely on political contributions from corporate lobbyists take away basic rights for workers even as they lavish the wealthiest Americans with tax breaks.”

Javier Stauring, co-director of the archdiocese’s Office of Restorative Justice, which assists people who are incarcerated, victims of crime and relatives of both, has worked alongside Zavala for 20 years. Most years, Zavala celebrated Christmas and Easter Masses at juvenile detention halls.

“He is a wonderful advocate for the marginalized communities -- the outcasts,” Stauring said. “It was his understanding of God and our faith that there is a preferential love for those who are suffering and those who are going through difficult times.”

Back at home, Zavala was a familiar figure in the archdiocese, particularly in its easternmost stretches, where parishioners and administrators alike often view themselves as worshiping in an enclave, removed from the politics and pressures of the downtown archdiocese headquarters.

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At the East Los Angeles church where Zavala was assigned as a young priest, and at the Irwindale pastoral center that serves as the base of the San Gabriel region, word of his resignation spread like wildfire.

At the unassuming Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in East L.A., three photographs hung in the rectory of the church: one of Pope Benedict XVI, one of Archbishop Gomez and one of a beaming Zavala. But on the front steps, parishioner Maria Isabel Delgado, one of a group of women who pray there each morning, burst into tears when asked about Zavala’s resignation.

“My heart sinks,” she said in Spanish. “I feel as though they lied to us.”

Across the street, on a block of modest stucco and wood-frame homes, with tidy rose gardens and figurines of Jesus in frontyards, Joey Menchaca, 30, said he was astonished and relieved to learn that the Vatican had confronted and dealt with Zavala’s transgressions so quickly. The church’s sexual abuse scandal, he said, had left him convinced that its administrators typically “take care of their own.”

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“Not this time,” he said. “It’s about time somebody pays.”

In recent years, Zavala worked most days at the San Gabriel Region Pastoral Center in Irwindale, where Deacon Gus Sebenius said calls and emails of condolence were pouring in. At the church that shares a campus with the pastoral center, Pastor Joseph Canna spent the morning wandering the grounds, hands in pockets, consoling parishioners and trying to make sense of the news.

“When I was assigned here 13 years ago I was asked: ‘Joseph, aren’t you worried about having the bishop next door and looking over your shoulder?’ ” he said. But Canna said Zavala was supportive of his initiatives -- including the construction of a new church, a development that was dubbed “The Miracle of Irwindale” because it was built entirely with local parishioners’ funds in a working-class community.

Martha Campo, a house cleaner in the pastoral home on the compound who has known Zavala for years and watched him dispense bread, milk and other essentials to the poor, said she was stunned.

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“He is a good man,” Campo said. “I cannot believe he could have kept a secret like this for so long.”

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scott.gold@latimes.com

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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Staff writer Teresa Watanabe contributed to this report.


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