Priestly sexual abuse, churchly cover-ups
I had to look twice at the date on the newspaper to make sure I wasn’t having a time-warp moment.
I’d heard this before. In a way, I’d covered this before.
My colleagues Ashley Powers, Victoria Kim and Harriet Ryan have dropped a doozy on Southern California with their story of memos recounting how, a decade and a half before the scandal emerged about Roman Catholic priests’ sexual abuse of young people, future Cardinal Roger Mahony and an advisor planned to hide these molestations from law enforcement, going so far as to move the suspect priests out of California.
In a word, a cover-up.
But long before those memos that The Times found about concealing priests’ misconduct, the church apparently was doing the same thing in the face of a lawsuit by a young woman named Rita Milla. I wrote the stories about her suit against seven Filipino priests working here, and the archdiocese, for $21 million in 1984. Her suit said that:
- For four years, beginning when she was 16 and a parishioner at a Wilmington Catholic Church, first one and then all seven priests had sex with her, beginning when one who fondled her through a broken confessional screen. Two of them assured her that “it was morally, ethically all right for her to have sexual intercourse with them … that by doing so, that she would be helping them and helping herself.” Milla was 16 when all this began; the age of consent in California is 18, but no question of criminal charges was evidently pursued in this matter, perhaps because of the statute of limitations.
- When she became pregnant -- by one of the younger priests, as DNA tests showed years later -- Milla says there was talk of an abortion; then the priests got her a passport, arranged travel to the home of one priest’s relative in the Philippines for her pregnancy, and told her family she was going abroad to study. When she came back with a baby daughter, and the priests did not pitch in to support the child, she asked the church to help hold the priests to their responsibility. But, she said, when one churchman said it was probably her fault, and not the priests’ alone, she went to a lawyer.
- Not soon enough. California courts first dismissed the archdiocese from the case, saying that because sex with parishioners isn’t part of a priest’s job description, the church couldn’t be liable. And then the courts threw out Milla’s case completely because her legal clock was timed out -- by about six months before the suit, as it turned out. The courts said she should have sued, at the latest, within a year of her daughter’s birth.
- Milla was regarded as off-balance, a fantasist, a scarlet woman. She filed a slander suit against a bishop who told a local Spanish-language radio station that she was a “person of bad reputation.” Then-Cardinal Timothy Manning, at the archdiocese’s old cathedral of St. Vibiana’s, scolded The Times for its coverage of Milla’s case. And the priests could not be served with the lawsuit because they could not be found. When I called looking for them, I was told they were out of the office. Then I was told they were away on vacation or retreat, then transferred to unknown parishes. Gone.
About half a dozen years after this, my phone at The Times rang. A creaky voice said, “Patt? It’s Father Tamayo.” The eldest of the seven priests was dying, and he was remorseful. He had a confession to make to me. He showed me documents on the archdiocese letterhead. One, CCed to Cardinal Manning (Mahony came to the archdiocese a year after Milla sued), advised Tamayo not to reveal he was being paid by the archdiocese unless he was questioned under oath. A check for $375 was included. It was one of many checks.
The archdiocese knew where to send Tamayo the letters advising him to stay away, and nearly four years’ worth of checks, but did not share that with Milla’s lawyers. A copy of one letter urging Tamayo to go back to the Philippines was copied to then-Archbishop Mahony.
Tamayo kept asking the archdiocese for permission to come back, but the letters told him to stay put; returning could “open old wounds and further hurt anyone concerned, including the archdiocese.” Tamayo was also in bad standing with the church because he had gotten married.
A church spokesman told me then that the payments didn’t amount to hush money but were mandated until Tamayo found another post. The fact that payments went on so long was “unusual” but were sent “out of compassion and care and a sense of moral responsibility for a man who had served us.”
No such responsibility was evidently acknowledged for Milla and her child. Not until 2007, when the church paid out a massive $660-million settlement to more than 500 young people who had been victimized by clergy, did Milla get any money for what she went through. By then her daughter, the priest’s daughter, was 25 years old.
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