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Abuse Victims Still Suffer Decades Later

Angry and blaming themselves, many of the ex-altar boys feel alienated from their loved ones.

By Nita Lelyveld and Jean Guccione
LA Times Staff Writers

October 16, 2005

Steve Sanchez used to get so jealous of his brother Billy.

Billy was only two years older, but he got to do everything first.

At Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Billy was an altar boy, and Father Clinton Hagenbach treated him like a prince. He bought Billy ice cream after church. He drove him to the desert to ride motorcycles.

Nearly every Friday night, Hagenbach would drive to the Sanchez house in Atwater Village to take Billy to the go-cart track. Steve would look longingly at the car full of older boys as it pulled away from the curb. He told his father, a teacher at a Catholic school, that he wanted to "be a part of Hagenbach's club."

"And my dad said, 'Just be a good altar boy and someday you'll be a part of that club,' " he said.

Steve was so excited, he felt sick on the day he first stood at Mass, alongside the priest, his brother and his father, who was a church lector.

He was thrilled the night not long after when the priest held the car door open and told him to hop in too.

Today, Hagenbach is dead, and Steve, 45, is one of 14 men suing the Los Angeles Archdiocese for failing to protect them from the priest. He is also a vocal victims' advocate who broke the ice for others when he told his story publicly in December 2002. But although he acts like a big brother to many, he no longer speaks to his own big brother.

Steve says he never wanted to go public. For this, too, he blames Billy.

*

Asked if his two eldest sons were ever close, Bill Sanchez Sr. said, "Oh, yes, yes, yes, they were close. They were very close." But by the time they were adults, they saw each other mostly at big family events when all five siblings — three sons, two daughters — came together with their own children in tow.

So in 2001, when Billy said he urgently needed to speak to Steve, the younger brother knew something was up.

Billy was very unhappy. He had a beautiful wife, beautiful kids. He had a good job teaching at a Catholic school. But his marriage was rocky, and he'd come to see that he was to blame. He couldn't connect with his wife. He couldn't just pick up the phone and chat with one of his brothers. He couldn't tell his parents he loved them. He couldn't sleep. He'd been in therapy for months, just treading water.

He kept running through the important figures in his life. Did his mother do something? No. His father? No. Then one day, as he drove on the Pasadena Freeway, a group of memories stuck deep within him surfaced in vivid detail, he said.

Right then, without even pulling over, he picked up his cellphone and asked his therapist: "Do you think being abused by a Catholic priest when you are about 10 years old might have something to do with it?"

That same day, he told his wife. He told his father that he thought that Hagenbach had abused him from when he was 10 to just before he learned to drive, when he was maybe 16. He couldn't stop sobbing. His father held him and said, "I'd kill the bastard if he was alive."

"This is an adult, but he was a little kid. That day he was a little kid," Bill Sanchez Sr. said. "I can't imagine anything being worse than something happening to your child."

But soon he had to. His youngest son had been too young to be an altar boy during Hagenbach's time, but Steve had been one. Billy asked his father to call him.

On the phone, his father was elliptical. Still, standing in his Glendale home, Steve knew.

"I was in the kitchen just thinking, what was it about? And then, just like a pit in my stomach, I'm like 'Oh crap,' " Steve said.

It was the year before the Boston church scandal broke. Steve had never spoken about the abuse, which lasted nearly a decade.

"This is a secret I was taking to the grave," he said.

*

Billy barged in. That's how Steve sees it. Billy returned Hagenbach uninvited into Steve's life. Anger at that intrusion has shaped Steve's activism.

Steve is a married financial advisor, a father, a USC graduate. He likes to say that he went public to show others that victims don't fit cliches — that they don't all live under freeways or look like "Pee-wee Herman, the mug shot." But he also has another point to make. On many a Sunday, Steve stands outside the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, directing protests against the church's treatment of victims. He is a Southern California leader in the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. But he says he doesn't barge in on victims. He lets them come to him. And they have.

Francisco Malo saw Hagenbach's craggy face and thick black-rimmed glasses on the TV news one night and fell sobbing to his living room floor.

"I felt like I'd been shot," said the 34-year-old aircraft mechanic, who served as an altar boy for Hagenbach in the mid-1980s at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Hawthorne.

Francisco, known as Cisco, saw Steve being interviewed about the priest, and he called him. Soon he met Steve and other men, including a bail bondsman and three firefighters. All had the priest — and so much more — in common.

They had grown up in crowded little houses in Catholic neighborhoods. They had attended Catholic schools. They had been taught that priests were sacred, chosen by God to represent Christ on Earth. Catholicism had been the center of their family lives.

They embraced Cisco and gave him the courage to tell his story to his parents, who were immigrants from Ecuador and devout. His father had worked nights and his mother days to send their son to Catholic school. Hagenbach had taken their confessions. Cisco's mother refused to believe him.

"She said, 'I know it couldn't have happened. No. No. No,' " Cisco said.

The other men had had experiences like this too. They knew how pain radiates across families.

Cisco, who served in the Army in Operation Desert Storm, calls the other Hagenbach men his "war buddies."

"They have been my lifeline. They have been my brothers," he said.

He said he feels especially close to Steve, who is 11 years older and who always apologizes to him for not stopping the priest before he got to Cisco. Cisco says he doesn't understand the apologies. It's not Steve's fault.

*

When his father asked him, Steve said yes, something had happened with Hagenbach, but he had been dealing with it — on his own.

Right away, Billy seemed to want to deal with nothing else. He was on sabbatical from his teaching job. He had time. He used it to trace Hagenbach's steps, from the priests he worked with to his former altar boys.

He even tracked down Steve's childhood friend Jimmy Baldridge, leaving him repeated messages at the firehouse where he worked. Jimmy assumed Billy wanted to catch up, but when they finally talked on the phone, he clearly didn't, Jimmy says. He cut right to the chase and asked about Hagenbach.

"And that whole Pandora's box just came wide open," Jimmy said, like a "clown in a music box jumping out at me."

For two months, Jimmy didn't broach the subject with his wife.

Billy has a theory now about people who have been abused in childhood. Put an abused man at a bus stop with a stranger, and the stranger will come away thinking he is friendly, even charming. Put the same man in his own home with a loved one and he will retreat like a turtle tucked into its shell.

Billy sees that now. He didn't see it then. He reunited Steve and Jimmy. He took them to their first support group meetings and to his therapist. But he didn't see that they weren't really there, that they were in shock, he said.

People often don't understand why victims of abuse don't speak out much sooner. The Hagenbach men don't understand completely either. But they say they know that from the first moment they were abused as boys, something inside them broke.

The men's lawsuits state that they have been "prevented from … obtaining the full enjoyment of life." This is what those words mean:

Cisco can't change his daughters' diapers. He's terrified to be around a naked child. He won't let anyone baby-sit his children. He can't hug his father because he can't bear a bristly male cheek against his own. In bed, if his wife reaches out to touch him, he flinches. He hates being touched.

One minute, Steve and his wife are driving about happily, running errands. The next minute, when she suggests an impromptu stop, he snaps. It took him years, he said, to see why.

Once, when Steve was 13 or 14, the priest came to pick him up. Steve was the first boy that night. He was happy to get a chance to sit up front.

Then Hagenbach said that he'd forgotten something at the rectory, that they'd have to swing by there quickly before the next stop.

"So we went back to the rectory, upstairs, and that just turned into — he just raped me," Steve said recently, voice flat.

*

Jimmy was going home from work each night and dragging himself straight to bed. Steve was having horrible nightmares.

Billy was busy.

That had always been his way, his father said. From boyhood, Steve had proceeded at his own deliberate pace. Billy had raced.

He hounded church officials, asking for Hagenbach's full history. He showed up unannounced at the homes of retired priests from Hagenbach's old parishes. To priests who weren't retired he offered a choice: talk to him or he'd be at their Mass the next day.

Jimmy, 44, says Billy updated Steve and him constantly, suggesting strategies they were far too numb to act upon.

Then one day Billy landed an appointment with Cardinal Roger M. Mahony.

The meeting took place on April 19, 2002. Billy will not discuss its details. But two months later, a church lawyer wrote him a check for $1.5 million.

The archdiocese has disclosed only four such settlements. The one paid to Billy was the most recent.

Jimmy says Billy's plan was to bring Steve and him to the meeting. But they weren't ready.

"His heart was in the right place, trying to get me to deal with it and come out. [But] I'm the crumb. I'm just being born. And he's already learning to run," Jimmy said. "I'm trying to play catch-up and Billy, he's at that point where he's now ready to go beat down doors and talk to Mahony. Today I could go sit in a room with [him] and get in his face, but not then."

After Billy got the money, Steve stopped taking his calls.

And when Steve tried to see Mahony, the cardinal would not see him.

The Boston church scandal had exploded. California had a new law that gave victims of long-ago abuse one year to file lawsuits. A class-action lawsuit had just been filed against the archdiocese.

In August, Steve got a letter from the church stating that recent events "have created a new situation that precludes the cardinal from meeting with you at this time."

Because the accusations came after Hagenbach's death, they have never been tested in court. His version of events is not known.

Attorney J. Michael Hennigan, who represents Mahony, said he didn't know if Hagenbach was guilty but "14, that's a lot of victims." Still, he said, the church cannot be held negligent for what it didn't know, and Billy was the first to tell about the priest.

Billy had arrived in the nick of time. By April 2002, "what seemed like isolated events were about to become an avalanche," said Hennigan.

"I know that the cardinal was moved in talking to Bill and wanted to resolve it compassionately," Hennigan said, of the settlement.

The issue of compensating one brother and not the other was discussed, Hennigan said: "I certainly had those conversations months later, when Steve came forward." Hennigan said he talked to Steve and "he seemed sincere to me."

Mahony is out of the country "on sabbatical" and unavailable for comment.

*

Bill Sanchez Sr. became a church lector at Holy Trinity because Hagenbach asked him. Barbara Sanchez pitched in at bake sales to help raise money for an annual trip to Disneyland that the priest had promised his altar boys. One of the neighbors sewed the boys' red capes. When Hagenbach began his 4 1/2-year stint at the Atwater church in 1968, these loyal Catholics lined up to help the energetic new priest.

"I mean, here he was, a friendly guy that went to the playground, talked to the children, had a Jeep, would take kids for ice cream afterward, really showed an interest in them," she said. "Up until that point, there really wasn't much of an altar boy society…. There were altar boys, but they were never given any treats."

Treats were Hagenbach's specialty, the boys said. His rectory rooms were full of treats parents never imagined. Soda pop. Bowls brimming with M&M's. Playboys. Porn videos. Guns. He served the boys liquor in tall, frosted glasses decorated with girls in bikinis. When the booze was poured in, the bikinis magically came off.

The boys had never met an adult quite like the priest. He swore like a sailor. He made racy remarks about women and racial slurs. On the freeway, he would zoom 80 mph, clutching a beer. He seemed so cool.

The boys didn't tell their parents the daring things he let them do. All they wanted was to keep being asked back to drink seven and sevens and play Screw Your Neighbor at his Saturday night card games in the rectory. When Hagenbach moved from parish to parish, the boys followed him.

"He created an environment that us kids liked," said Billy. "It would have been perfect if he wasn't there."

In fact, it was never perfect.

When he took boys to the desert, they could fire guns and ride motorcycles, but he'd squeeze on the bikes behind them and wedge a hand into their pants, the men say.

"I remember climbing into the backseat of Hagenbach's car at 11 years old, saying, 'I want to go home.' There were bullets flying all over the place. There was drinking and shooting guns," said Billy.

But even scared boys stuck around — for the perks.

Hagenbach taught them to shave. He gave them their first (used) cars and taught them to drive. He took them out of school to do funerals, at which they got big tips.

He gave them cash — $60, $80, $100 — straight from the collection plates in which their parents had just placed their earnings. "I felt like a paid whore," said Jimmy, who described a "robotic routine": "We'd eat. We'd play cards. We'd drink. Molest Jim. Jim, go home." He balled up the money in his tight fists, he said. But then he put it in a savings account. Over more than eight years of abuse, the cache grew large enough for most of the down payment on his first home.

One of the firefighters said he grew up in a very poor home in Silver Lake, where he slept on a sliver of a fold-out couch — horizontally, under the feet of three sisters. He was the second-youngest of nine and, by the time Hagenbach showed up at St. Teresa of Avila in 1974, the only son. His older brother had been killed in Vietnam, leaving his father, a tailor for 40 years at Bullocks Wilshire, a hollow shell.

Hagenbach bought him a shiny silver 10-speed bike, which his family still has. He took him on his first vacation — to the priest's sister's house in Bend, Ore., which had an indoor pool. "To me it was like, wow, Trump Plaza," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Hagenbach also let him eat more than his fill, which may have been the biggest draw.

"I'll never forget. I used to get a Big Mac, two large fries and a Coke," he said.

The men are big now — brawny, wide-shouldered, strong. But sometimes they forget that they weren't big then. They had seen so little — and the priest seemed to offer them so much.

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Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
www.snapnetwork.org

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