The Priest That Preyed

(The New York Times)  It is the autumn of 2003, and I am sitting with my wife and teenage son at a large table that is groaning with plates of Mexican food and soft drinks and wine. We’re celebrating my sister’s anniversary, and like most Mexican parties in Los Angeles, a member of a religious order is in attendance to share in the family’s joy.

This time, it’s a nun whom I’ve known since I was a student at St. Thomas the Apostle grammar school. I am no longer Catholic, but I admire this tough, compassionate woman who dedicated herself to educating the children of my predominantly working-class Latino neighborhood. She leans over and says, almost in a whisper, “I read your new book.” And then she says, “I recognized him.”

Immediately, I know whom she’s talking about, and I begin to perspire.

The title story of the book, called “Assumption,” describes a fictionalized priest, Father González, who served a parish in a neighborhood not unlike the one I grew up in. The priest in the story is known for being “cool” and spending time with some of the more troubled boys at the nearby grammar school. The boys talk about how he has invited them to visit his room, drink wine, listen to Sly Stone and look at dirty magazines. These visits, of course, lead to the boys’ molesting. In the story, the priest gets caught and, in disgrace, hangs himself.

In real life, shame did not bring an end to the abuse. The priest I based the story on, the priest the sister recognized, was the Rev. Eleuterio Ramos. My parish knew him as Father Al, the hip young priest who spoke out for immigrant and Chicano rights, railed against the Vietnam War, could drink with the best of them and dedicated his spare time to mentoring the most troubled boys at St. Thomas.

“I was young and naïve,” the nun says. “I thought it was great that he was helping the boys who needed it.” She looks down at her plate. Finally she says, simply, “I liked your book.”

I, too, was naïve. I was jealous of the boys who got to spend extra time with Father Al. He took some of my friends to the beach, the movies or to his famous room at the rectory. But I came from a home that had two attentive parents, not the profile Father Al searched out.

The allegations against Father Al, who became a priest in 1966 and was transferred from parish to parish 15 times, first came out in the ’90s, when the Orange Diocese was sued by two men. They accused Father Al of plying them with alcohol when they were children, showing them adult films and sexually abusing them. But by that point, he had already been suspended from priestly duties. In 2003, he admitted to the police that he had molested at least 25 boys. But because of the statute of limitations, he was never charged, and he died in 2004, a year after my conversation with the nun.

According to church records that became public last month after years of litigation brought by victims of sexual abuse at the hands of priests and brothers of religious orders, this story is sadly familiar. The documents include information on 124 priests over four decades, and demonstrate a pattern by the church of cover-up, denial and — I can’t help but think it — evil.

Though Father Al’s victims were not only Latino, the news has been particularly painful to Latino families who considered Father Al to be one of them. Families like mine admired his desire to help the most vulnerable in the Catholic community, the troubled boys who were poor or lacked a father figure. That admiration blinded us to the clues that, today, would not go unquestioned.

The same is true for Father Al’s superior, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, who was famous among Latinos for speaking out for immigrants’ rights. But as the thousands of pages of records show, he apparently tried to prevent law enforcement from discovering the abuse of his parishioners. But this question of guilt should be decided in a court of law. Last week, the retired cardinal was relieved of his remaining duties.

Thinking back to that conversation with the nun a decade ago, I have no doubt that more revelations will come to light; earlier this week it emerged that the church hadn’t released all the information it had promised.

I once hoped that fictionalizing Father Al would help expose the truth to a community that had been so thoroughly betrayed. But I have now come to the conclusion that fiction can never match the audacious brutality visited upon those children for so many years.

Daniel A. Olivas is the author, most recently, of the novel “The Book of Want.”