New Law Gives Sex-Abuse Plaintiff the Means to Fight
A police officer who says he was molested by a priest
expects challenges to his faith and job.
By William Lobdell, LA Times
December 31, 2002
An hour or so before midnight, the two Oxnard police officers pulled
alongside each other on a deserted road. Childhood friends and
former altar boys, they now patrolled the streets of La Colonia,
the working-class Latino neighborhood of their youth.
That evening last fall, Manuel Vega bypassed the usual small talk
and asked hisbuddy about something that had been bothering him lately.
He wanted to know if his friend was also sexually abused by a priest
from their childhood.
"Did Father Fidencio molest you?"
Vega said his friend looked stunned, and then replied, "Springtime
in the sixth grade."
Within a few days, Vega found six other former altar boys who said
they had been molested by Fidencio Silva, a priest who was last
reported working in Mexico for his order, the Missionaries of the
Holy Spirit. In a television interview this year, Silva denied the
But in the following months, Vega couldn't find an attorney to
take the case. Half a dozen lawyers turned him down, most saying
he didn't have a chance because his statute of limitations had run
Then last March, one of the nation's more aggressive attorneys
in sexual abuse cases against the Roman Catholic Church agreed to
take up Vega's cause, playing the odds that California lawmakers
would pass a bill that would lift the statute of limitations in
molestation lawsuits for one year, beginning Jan. 1.
So far, the gamble has paid off. With Vega and other survivors
acting as lobbyists, the California Legislature unanimously passed
the law this year.
Hundreds of lawsuits are expected to be filed beginning Thursday.
But for the church, Vega may be among the most formidable of the
plaintiffs whose cases can now go forward: a lifelong Catholic,
married to a devout Catholic and father of two; winner of the Navy
and Marine Corps Medal for Heroism, the service's highest peacetime
award; police officer of the year; Navy reservist; revered in Oxnard's
Latino community; unafraid to speak publicly about his claims of
sexual abuse by a priest; and a police officer who has found nine
others with similar stories of alleged abuse by Father Silva.
"I give Manny Vega credit. If he can do it, others can,"
said an alleged victim of another priest who decided to come forward
because of Vega's public stance. (The Times doesn't identify victims
of molestation if they prefer to remain anonymous.)
Vega's voice never falters when he talks about the details of the
alleged abuse or the ripple effects it has had on those around him,
including his mother, a lifelong Catholic. She wonders if she's
to blame for her son's alleged abuse. She has stopped going to church
and cries as she drives by her former parish.
"In my job, I see a lot of victims from someone who
loses their cell phone to people dying in my arms," said Vega,
a compact man with a military-style haircut, wide face and friendly
smile. "I'm not going to be a victim. Something inside of me
said, 'No, I'm not going to let it.' "
The Los Angeles Archdiocese said it will contest the new law, arguing
that lifting the statute of limitations is unconstitutional and
unfairly singles out the Catholic Church. Still, officials say they
are committed to helping molestation victims, no matter how old
"In addition to providing counseling and support, the archdiocese
believes that legitimate victims of sexual abuse by clergy deserve
consideration of compensation for their suffering," spokesman
Tod Tamberg said. "This was true prior to the passage of [the
new state law], and it is true today."
As an altar boy, Vega said, he was molested by Father Silva from
about age 12 to 15 in a variety of settings: the church, the sacristy,
the rectory and on outings to the beach and mountains.
For almost two decades, Vega said, he pushed the memories into
his subconscious. After graduating from high school in 1984, he
spent close to nine years in the Marines, working as a sniper. In
1989, he rescued men from a helicopter crash that killed 19 Marines.
It wasn't until he left the military in 1992 and entered the Los
Angeles Police Academy that memories of the alleged molestation
began to surface during training classes on how to handle incidents
of sexual abuse.
He and his wife were married in the Catholic Church, but he kept
making excuses for not attending Sunday Mass. Two years ago, he
told his wife about the alleged abuse.
"It was just a relief because I didn't have to continue making
excuses," Vega said. "But it bothered me then and bothers
me now that the church that had been a staple of my life was taken
away from me."
By the end of last year, he weighed the potential fallout from
his public disclosure , and decided to go forward.
"Would I lose respect on the street?" Vega recalled asking
himself. "What will my fellow officers and family say? How
is this going to test everyone's faith?"
Vega said the emotional effects of childhood molestation don't
necessarily conform to the current statute of limitations, which
allows lawsuits to be filed until the age of 26 or three years after
you first realize the link between physical and emotional damage
and the sexual abuse.
"At least for me, it wasn't until this particular year that
I realized exactly what happened," said Vega, 36. "And
there was no ignoring it anymore."
After finding seven other alleged victims, Vega met with them around
the dining room table in his Oxnard home. The group included two
other police officers, two corporate executives and an attorney.
Eventually, two more alleged victims came forward. Vega and the
other men filed suit in May, knowing that they could not proceed
very far without a change in the law. So Vega went to Sacramento
to lobby lawmakers and testify before committees for the need for
legislation that allowed the statute of limitations to be lifted
in molestation cases.
"I know I personally helped get that law passed," Vega
said. "The new law ... will bring a sense of closure to the
victims but not to the priests. They will still have to answer to