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Stepping Forward

Four brothers say a Sacramento priest abused them in the 1970s. Now they want their day in court.

By Jennifer Garza -- Bee Staff Writer
Published December 20, 2003


Even now, after all these years, Francisco Chavez looks over his shoulder when he enters the basement of his parents' Oak Park home.

The room is empty now. Chavez and his brothers moved out long ago in an attempt, they say, to leave behind everything the basement represented.

They didn't get far.

"We never dealt with it ... so one way or another we always ended up back here," says Chavez, referring to his parents' house.

Walking around the basement, Chavez's voice begins to crack when he points to the bedroom where he says the four boys slept with baseball bats by their sides in case the man who stalked them returned.

What happened?

Even now, Chavez, 35, is trying to make sense of it. That is why he and his brothers filed suit and why he says they are determined to go to court.

The sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church over the past two years is entering a new phase -- the phase of settlements. To help victims and to put an end to the scandal, dioceses across the country are reaching financial agreements with those who say they have been sexually abused by priests.

The same is expected in Sacramento. In the past year, 30 people have filed suit claiming childhood sexual abuse. James Sweeney, the outside counsel for the diocese, expects that many of the claims will be settled.

But not all of them.

Francisco Chavez, who goes by the nickname Chico, says he wants his day in court.

"That's the first thing people think you want -- money. But I don't want a settlement. I want accountability. I want an apology," says Chavez.

In his lawsuit, Chavez claims that approximately 30 years ago, he was repeatedly sexually assaulted by the Rev. Mario Blanco.

Diocesan officials, citing privacy and legal concerns, would not speak about specific cases. But they did say that about half the cases facing the diocese involve Blanco, a priest who served in the Sacramento diocese from Oct. 23, 1969, to April 5, 1973, and was dismissed following a church investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct. Diocesan officials later settled two cases in which the priest was accused of sexual assault.

Originally from Costa Rica, the priest floated among several Spanish-speaking congregations, according to diocesan records and people who remember him. Blanco was a talented musician who started church youth bands. That's how the Chavez family met him.

After he left the diocese, Blanco stayed in the area and started working as a "traditionalist" priest, one who does not recognize the pope's authority and post-Vatican II teachings. Blanco, now a traditionalist priest in Tacoma, Wash., who does not answer to any diocese, denies the accusations.

"I don't remember them. All these people want is money. I don't have money," Blanco, 74, said on the front steps of his home in September. The priest has had numerous health problems in recent years and has trouble speaking.

Chavez is stunned by Blanco's claim that he does not remember the brothers. He adds that the family has several photos of the priest with the children.

Growing angry, Chavez says he would like to see the man who he says tormented him from when he was about age 6 to about 14.

"I want to see him face to face, man to man. I'm not the vulnerable little kid anymore."

The four brothers -- David, Javier, Jaime and Chico -- are not surprised that there are other claims against Blanco. They paint a picture of a priest who manipulated his way into a family -- and of parents so trusting of the church that they let Blanco spend hours alone with their children.

They recount how their parents were thrilled that Blanco paid attention to their sons, especially when he told them he wanted to start a band featuring their kids.

"My parents thought it was going to take them somewhere ... that he was going to make their kids famous," says Chico Chavez.

He says his father worked long hours as a landscaper. Their mother was often ill and spent much of her time in bed. There were 10 children. Blanco taught the kids music, and their father was so happy that he built a makeshift stage area in a corner of the basement. The Norteño-style band called "Crysol" played at several churches throughout the diocese, according to a church news clipping from the time. They cut two records in Spanish.

Over time, Blanco became a frequent visitor to the Chavez house.

Chico Chavez claims in his suit that the priest assaulted him repeatedly beginning when he was young. He says he was too ashamed and frightened to tell anyone and that the priest threatened the family. Chavez says it wasn't until he was a teenager, and told his brothers David and Javier that he had been abused, that they told him they had also been assaulted by Blanco.

Jaime says he fought off the priest. But Jaime also became increasingly hostile -- he picked lots of fights at school -- over the priest's presence in their home.

The boys say that when they told their parents about the abuse, their father became angry, accusing them of telling lies about the priest. But the boys made it clear -- they didn't want the priest around.

But they say Blanco did come back.

Each of the Chavez brothers describes waking up in the middle of the night and seeing that the priest had been staring at them through a window while they slept in the basement. They say he threatened them, and they chased the priest down the street. After that, they started sleeping with the baseball bats by their sides.

Their father declined to speak to The Bee. Their mother died in 1992.

Blanco said he does not remember the incident.

Sweeney, the diocesan counsel, could not speak about the specifics of the case, but says that Blanco had already left the employment of the diocese by the time listed in the Chavez lawsuit.

"He was a schismatic priest by then," says Sweeney.

Men like the Chavez brothers don't talk about being sexually abused.

Not even to each other. At least that was the unspoken understanding among David, Jaime, Javier and Chico.

Over the past year and a half, as the sexual abuse scandal surrounding the Catholic Church erupted, the brothers say it became impossible to ignore the subject any longer. Chico broke the silence first. He was shocked when his brothers told him their stories.

"It was the pink elephant in the room. We all acted like we didn't see it," says David Chavez.

By their own admission, the brothers are not close. Over the years, they've drifted apart, each trying to cope with the effects of their childhood in his own way. The Chavez brothers have had their share of troubles, including alcohol and drugs. "The ultimate dysfunctional family," says David.

At a recent gathering at their parents' house, the brothers decide to walk down the street to Immaculate Conception, the church the family attended for years and where they met Blanco.

Javier, a self-described alcoholic, says that talking about the priest is not easy, and he admits he had to drink before meeting his brothers on this morning. "What would I say if I saw him now? I'd say, how could you? You ruined my life."

Jaime, walking beside his brother, listens silently.

Later, he says he feels responsible. "I tried to protect my brothers and for a long time I thought I had. I guess I didn't do a very good job."

When they get to the church, the brothers grow silent. They stand outside but can't bring themselves to go in. None of them attends church anymore. "I stopped believing a long time ago," says Francisco.

After a few minutes, David and Javier say they feel uncomfortable in front of the church and turn back toward the house.

The Chavez brothers have moved on with varying degrees of success. David, 42, has worked for a Sacramento glass company for more than 10 years. He recently moved back into the family home, where his father still lives.

Jaime, 40, lives near Red Bluff and also works for a glass company. Until last year, he hadn't spoken to anyone in his family for nine years. He is in a long-term relationship and has three children.

Javier, 39, works for a recycling company. He's had problems holding down jobs. His former wife has primary custody of their five children. He is currently renting a room from friends.

Chico served honorably in the military, attended the University of California, Davis (but did not graduate), and now works for a social service agency that provides food for the needy. He has been married for four years and has one child.

Looking back, Chico says he's been crying out for help for years. He told a high school girlfriend. He wrote about it on the personal essay portion of his college application. Gradually, he began telling other people. He is now in therapy.

Chico says he filed suit -- his three brothers filed later -- because he wants church officials to know about what happened. He wants answers.

"I want this to come out in the open," say Chico. "I'm ready to deal with the past."

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


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