Survivor Tries to Break Barriers on Priest Scandal

Stephanie Hoops, Ventura County Star

At a time when Cardinal Roger M. Mahony already faces a molestation cover-up lawsuit coming out of Mexico and a documentary film about his role in another sexual abuse case, a Ventura County man is putting even more pressure on the Catholic leader.

Eric Barragan, 31, who says he was sexually abused by a priest as a child in his Santa Paula home, is speaking to victims and crowds here and in Mexico, encouraging the exposure of sexual abuse in the Latino community. His activity comes five years after the U.S. Catholic community had its church crisis, and is creating momentum for a similar one in Mexico – one that again places Mahony center stage.

Mahony has been named a defendant to a Los Angeles case, together with the Diocese of Tehuacan, Mexico. It alleges that an international conspiracy between the two dioceses worked to conceal the sexual misconduct of a priest, Nicholas Aguilar, making it possible for him to continue his alleged misdeeds by moving between parishes in Mexico and Los Angeles since the late 1980s.

Mahony’s spokesman, Tod Tamberg, calls the allegations “hogwash.”

“There was no basis to say that there was any kind of collusion and conspiracy between the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and Cardinal Mahony and the church in Mexico,” he said, adding that facts and letters bear that out.

Mahony is also featured in a documentary film – director and writer Amy Berg’s documentary “Deliver Us From Evil” – being released Friday. A former priest, Oliver O’Grady, who now lives in Ireland, claims Mahony’s actions as head of the largest archdiocese in America helped him have access to abuse boys and girls as young as 9 months old.

The film includes a video clip from a 2004 deposition of Mahony, during which he is questioned about a priest who has sexual urges toward a 9-year-old.

“Is that cause to remove him from ministry?” he is asked.

“No,” Mahony replies bluntly.

Tamberg calls the movie “one of the most biased pieces of filmmaking I’ve seen in a long time.”

He said O’Grady is not credible and that O’Grady lied to then-Bishop Mahony about his activities in Central California during the 1980s.

“What he did tell the bishop was that he had feelings for children,” Tamberg said. “He never told him he was an abuser.”

The movie came as a revelation for Los Angeles law enforcement officials, who told the New York Times it will fuel ongoing consideration as to whether Mahony engaged in criminal activity.

“The cardinal has not been and is not the subject of a criminal investigation,” Tamberg said.

Whether Mahony has broken any laws remains to be seen.

One thing is for certain: Survivors like Barragan have found it hard to forgive Mahony.

“I cannot be compassionate to Cardinal Mahony knowing that lives were going to be destroyed,” Barragan said. “They should have known and protected us but they didn’t. Innocent lives are being destroyed.”

Barragan is taking a risk, being so vocal about a country in which the church is closely aligned with government officials, says Jeff Anderson, a Minnesota lawyer who’s seen people kidnapped and terrorized in connection with the pending Mexican allegations.

“Anybody who speaks against the priest – much less the cardinal – is betraying a cultural reverence of trust nobody has dared to betray,” Anderson said of the Mexican attitude toward the Catholic Church.

Indeed, getting involved has required Barragan to leave his comfort zone in Ventura County.

“It’s been very scary for me because my life has been threatened for sticking my nose in another country,” he said.

Barragan came forward several years ago with two of his brothers to say they were abused as children. His contacts in the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests asked him for assistance in Mexico, in part because he speaks Spanish.

“It’s something I need to do,” he said.

SNAP was there for him, he said, and “now it’s my time to be there for others who need justice in Mexico.”

Barragan says he and the small group of activists and lawyers he travels with have found more than 100 of Aguilar’s victims and are working to “uncover the cover-up.”

“We’re naming some big names in Mexico, and the more we get, the more dangerous it gets,” Barragan said.

Indeed, Barragan, David Clohessy, national director of SNAP, and two lawyers representing Joaquin Aguilar Mendez, the plaintiff in the suit, were detained by Mexican immigration authorities a month ago after giving a news conference about the allegations against Aguilar. The priest is not related to the plaintiff.

“It was just such a wild scene,” Clohessy said of the detention. “It very much felt like harassment and intimidation.”

With Barragan and others taking up the cause in Mexico, a new movie coming out and the lawsuit’s ties to Mexico, the pressure is on Mahony.

Clohessy doesn’t know if the confluence of bad publicity will have an impact in a legal arena, but he is confident it will cause some change.

“Every shred of evidence that exposes Mahony is positive because it leads to validation for victims and greater skepticism among Catholics,” he said.

The more the abuse is exposed, he said, the more inclined Catholics will be to contact police officials, not church officials, when they experience or witness abuse.

“Every victim that speaks up, every article that’s written, every lawsuit that’s filed is a step forward to rooting out this cancer in the church and preventing its recurrence.”