No more secrets
Sacramento’s bishop says transparency required in clergy sex abuse crisis
During his more than 35 years in the ministry, Sacramento Bishop Jaime Soto has never shied away from controversy, always standing up for what he believes is right, whether he’s fighting for immigration reform or a more inclusive view of all Catholics regardless of sexual orientation.
The 63-year-old cleric again finds himself in the eye of a spiritual storm—of sexual abuse revelations breaking over Sacramento and the rest of the Catholic world.
“Every week it seems that there are new revelations about the depth and horror of the scourge of sexual abuse,” Soto told SN&R last week. “I am committed to confronting this ugly past. We failed to protect you as children, we failed to tell you the truth as adults.”
On April 30, Soto released a list of 44 priests and two deacons who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors and young people in the Diocese of Sacramento.
The list covered incidents between 1955 and 2014 “and is a necessary reckoning for our local church,” Soto said. None of the priests identified are still working for the diocese; many have died.
Based on a comprehensive outside review of nearly 1,500 clerics throughout the diocese, the victims who reported being sexually abused include 39 girls, 91 boys or young adults and three men.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests has been urging Soto to issue such a list, which includes photos of clerics, their whereabouts and full work assignments.
Soto’s diocese spans 20 counties across 42,000 square miles from Sacramento to the Oregon border and now serves more than a million Catholics, the majority of them Latinos and Filipinos. And many of the victims are from poor, rural parishes, Soto said.
The three most frequent offenders were Francisco Javier Garcia, Mario Blanco Porras and Gerardo Beltran Rico. Porras, whose 21 victims were all male, died in 2008. He served in Sacramento at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament and Immaculate Conception Parish.
Garcia, whose 24 alleged victims were also all male, 20 of them under age 14, ministered from 1973 to 1995 in rural communities including Woodland, Galt, Colusa, Williams, Walnut Grove and Rio Vista.
Rico’s 15 alleged victims from 1982 to 1991 included 11 females under age 14. He served in Orland and Winters as well as St. Joseph’s Parish in Sacramento. Arrest warrants were issued for both Garcia and Rico, who fled to Mexico and remain fugitives, the diocese said.
The California Attorney General’s Office has asked six California dioceses that have conducted reviews of sexual abuse allegations to document how they report child abuse to local law enforcement. Sacramento is among those that have been asked to produce records, and Soto said he will assist the AG to ensure that his diocese maintains the highest reporting standards.
In 2013 Soto’s office helped law enforcement apprehend Father Uriel Ojeda, a popular young priest in Woodland who was sentenced to eight years in prison for molesting a 13-year-old girl.
‘The priest is almost deified’
Soto, who has Mexican roots like many of his parishioners, said incidents of sexual abuse in church or at home too often remained hidden because the sense of shame was so great.
But in 2002, the Catholic Church issued the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, “which greatly reduced the frequency of these sins and drastically changed the culture,” Soto said. Along with greater transparency by the church, parishioners need to share responsibility and a moral obligation to bring these charges forward “so we can work together to hold the church accountable and absolutely get in front of abuse and not let it fester.”
Well more than half the victims are Latino, the bishop said, and in rural communities, “the priest is almost deified. There is anger mixed with disgust and sadness because they want to trust their priests. When a priest betrays that trust the wound is deep.”
In the Latino community, “when sexual abuse is a problem, it needs to be addressed, not hidden,” Soto said.
Soto is a devotee of Pope Francis, who on May 9 issued new global rules for all Catholic churches to follow, ensuring that each has a system in place by June 2020 for receiving complaints, investigating and reporting incidents of abuse.
The Sacramento diocese already has an Independent Review Board—nine men and women including six lay persons, a former judge and prosecutor and several with experience helping victims of abuse—that thoroughly investigates allegations of misconduct, said diocese spokesman Kevin Eckery.
“We’ve reported these crimes directly to law enforcement since 1996,” he said.
Soto praised the victims and their families who came forward “for the courage and conviction that they don’t want others to suffer. Their courage to speak about their own experiences compelled us to come to this moment of accounting.”
His flock’s love of the church “demands I do everything I could to recover their trust and their faith,” Soto said. “Catholics remain committed because they believe Jesus is in charge. If you look at the history of the church, it’s always in a state of purification. It’s no secret that corruption has harmed the church in the past; the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s were a particularly problematic time.”
Soto said he tells his parishioners, “’desahogarse, let it out!’ The silence, the reluctance to speak out aggravates the issue in our community.
“As bishop, I have come forward and been transparent about how the church has gravely failed. It’s not healthy to keep this a secret. It would make the problem worse.”