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After Settlement, Finding Peace is a Struggle

Chico Chavez settled with the church a year ago. He's yet to forget the abuse.

By Jennifer Garza -- Sacramento Bee Staff Writer
Saturday, July 1, 2006

Chico Chavez slumps on the bench and again wonders if he can do this.

He is sitting in front of the library at the University of California, Davis. At 38, he has returned to college and is preparing for finals.

Chavez doesn't have to be here on this hot June afternoon. He could be home relaxing by the pool in the backyard of his new, 3,700- square-foot house. He could be vacationing with his wife, Kris, and their two sons. He could be enjoying the life a $4.25 million settlement offers.

But Chavez still works and goes to school because he believes he must.

If he does well, he would be one step further from his past -- the scared boy who was too afraid to tell anyone he had been raped by the family priest, the teenager who hid behind alcohol and drugs, the angry man who didn't trust anyone and hated the church.

And so he is here.

Chavez looks at the students walking across the quad.

"They are so much smarter than me," he says.

Chavez plans to spend the next eight hours -- until the librarian turns off the lights at midnight -- studying for his "Rousseau and Nietzsche" class final. He worries about his grades.

"Maybe if I hadn't been molested by my priest my life would be different, school would be easier. Who knows? I can't do anything about the past now."

Chavez sighs deeply and stands up. He gathers his books and slowly makes his way to the library, weighed down by his backpack and his memories.

A year ago, Chavez stood on the steps of the Sacramento Superior Court with his wife and children nearby.

It was the day officials with the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento announced that they had agreed to pay $35 million to 33 victims to settle claims of clergy sexual abuse.

The California settlements were the highest in the country, the result of state legisla- tion in 2002 that temporarily lifted the statute of limitations on such civil cases for one year. The minimum paid out to each Sacramento plaintiff was $400,000.

Chavez, who says he was sexually molested by a former Sacramento priest over a 10-year period, was awarded the most. The amount of his settlement has not been disclosed previously.

Chavez's settlement is believed to be "one of the top two or three largest" individual settlements in the country, according to David Clohessy national director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

But a year after the court case ended, Chavez struggles to find his way.

While years of therapy have helped, Chavez says he feels guilty about what "I did with that priest." He has nightmares and insomnia. He has difficulty forming close friendships. He refuses to allow anyone but his sister and in-laws to baby-sit his children. He has broken ties with most of his family.

Chavez says he is fortunate in terms of the settlement, but adds in the next breath, "I would give it all back for my childhood."

Those who work with survivors say there are many victims like Chavez. For the past few years, they have focused their energy on their court cases, bringing their predators to justice and fighting the Catholic church.

Now, the legal proceedings have ended, and the victims have to face what happened to them as children.

"There's a temptation to say once a case is settled, that everything's over," says Clohessy. "What I say to a survivor is, 'Hey, congratulations on your settlement, but you'll likely have the same nightmares, the same insomnia and addictions and insecurities that you did before.' "

Since ending litigation, Clohessy says, the victims are "all over the map." Some have adjusted well. A couple did not and have committed suicide. But most, he says, are like Chavez: "Trying to work things out."

Chavez is not looking for easy answers. He is grateful for a wife who has stood by him, his children, his employers. But, happiness?

"I don't know if that will ever happen," says Chavez. "I'm just looking for some kind of peace."

That's why he's going to school. Chavez sees it as a step in his recovery, a step away from that little boy who remembers the priest calling him stupid.

The cycle begins

Chavez was about 5 when he met the Rev. Mario Blanco. Musically talented, Blanco had promised Chavez's parents that he would teach the kids music and form a Mexican band singing Norteño-style music.

The father was so pleased that he built a stage area in the corner of the basement. The group played at local churches and made two Spanish records.

Chavez's father worked long hours as a landscaper. His mother was ill. Chavez says that one afternoon Blanco grabbed and molested him. Chavez was too ashamed and frightened to tell anyone. The cycle began.

Chavez says he was molested repeatedly for the next 10 years. He suspected his brother David also was being molested, and when he was a teenager, he learned that two of his brothers also had been abused.

The four teenage boys told the priest repeatedly not to come around, but Chavez says Blanco kept stalking them. One day Jaime chased Blanco with a baseball bat.

The priest stopped coming around.

Sixteen of the 33 cases the diocese settled involved Blanco. The victims are all men who came from poor or working-class Latino families whose parents spoke little English. The priest allegedly threatened to have his victims' families deported if they told anyone. Blanco served in the diocese from Oct. 23, 1969, to April 5, 1973, and was dismissed following a church investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct. He remained in the area for several years afterward.

Blanco, 77, is now a schismatic priest associated with a "traditionalist" Tacoma, Wash., church that does not recognize Vatican authority.

Criminal charges could not be brought against Blanco because the statute of limitations had run out. David, Jaime and Javier Chavez also sued and received settlements.

Blanco has denied the allegations.

"I don't understand why the diocese settled," he said after learning of the agreement last year.

Money a strong force

After the settlement was awarded, the Chavez family moved into a new, five-bedroom home in West Sacramento. Everything they owned fit into their garage.

Chico Chavez never had a lot of money growing up. He's always worked for a nonprofit. Kris worked in day care. For years the family lived in a crowded, two-bedroom North Sacramento apartment.

Chico and Kris Chavez are determined to be financially conservative with the settlement money. The house is their biggest purchase.

Money changes people -- and the couple have noticed. "People approach me and start talking about their money problems; it's weird," says Chavez. The Chavezes have a financial adviser and the money is invested for the long term. They are not spending lavishly.

Kris Chavez is now able to stay home full time with their sons, Miguel, 6, and Marcos, 2. Chico Chavez pays for his therapy and his education. They have given generously to charities, particularly those that help abused children. They donated $40,000 to the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

Chavez continues working at California Emergency Food Link in Sacramento, where he trains mostly parolees and recovering drug addicts for trucking jobs.

His boss, Margaret Healey, has nothing but praise for Chavez.

"He's a tireless worker and very compassionate," says Healey. "He's probably the most honest and reflective person I've ever met in my life."

Chavez continues to work because he worries that he "has not done enough to make up for the things I did."

Intellectually, Chavez knows he's not at fault for the abuse, but he still blames himself.

Healey, a Catholic, says she is upset with how the church treated Chavez, who she has known for six years.

"I've watched him grow; he's really trying to change his life and put this behind him."

Darkness before the climb

The turning point came 6 1/2 years ago when Chavez, again, came home drunk late one night. His wife, who was pregnant with Miguel, threatened to leave him if he didn't stop drinking.

"That was the lowest point for me," he says. "I couldn't bear losing her."

Chavez, who started drinking when he was a teenager, stopped. He tried Alcoholics Anonymous, but says he couldn't handle the thought of a sponsor, the thought of getting close to someone. Instead, he told people at work that he was an alcoholic.

"They're the ones who held me accountable, and of course, my wife."

He also started therapy, which he says saved his life. For three years, he had put a lot of energy into the litigation, and when it was over he wanted to meet with church officials.

Several months ago, Chavez met with the bishops. In separate meetings, he spoke to Bishop William K. Weigand and Auxiliary Bishop Richard Garcia for the first time. Neither had been in Sacramento when the alleged abuse happened.

Chavez sat down with them and told him how he felt about the church, how he lost his faith in God.

"They both apologized and listened," says Chavez. "But I have no plans to return to the Catholic church."

Garcia says he was moved by his heartfelt talk with Chavez.

"He seemed very honest and open," says Garcia. "He seemed very anxious to begin a whole new life and to allow God to work through him."

Worries and hopes

Kris Chavez worries about her husband's soul.

She's an evangelical Christian and attends church regularly. She says "it is my hope and my prayer" that her husband becomes a Christian. "I hope that that's the Lord's will for his life."

Although a nonbeliever, Chavez does attend church with his family when he can. Lately, he's been too busy with school.

This is his second time around at UC Davis. When he was in his early 20s, he was a student but dropped out because of his drinking.

Returning to school has not been easy. Chavez says sometimes he feels "totally out of place among those kids who are so smart." But he works hard. He spends hours reviewing class notes. He's a regular at the library.

Chavez is about 30 units away from his bachelor's degree in political science. He dreams of attending law school and helping the underprivileged. Last week, Chavez learned he received an "A," a "B" and a "C+," in his "Rousseau and Nietzsche" class.

He was relieved.

Chavez gave notice at work recently so he can focus full time on his studies next year. He also wants to spend more time with his family.

One year after the settlement, Chavez says, he still wakes up in cold sweats and thinks about the abuse at least a couple of times a day. Sometimes he thinks about confronting Blanco.

But then it hits him: What's the point?

"He'll never admit it," says Chavez.

Chavez wants to change for himself, but also for his family.

"I want to leave a better legacy for my sons and show them that you can overcome evil."

About the writer:

* The Bee's Jennifer Garza can be reached at (916) 321-1133 or jgarza@sacbee.com.

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