Without values we can’t have faith,’ says Deacon Paulino Juárez, prison ministry chaplain who reported alleged abuse of jailed inmate to authorities.

On a white board, hanging just inches beneath a wooden cross inside a meeting room at St. Genevieve Church in Panorama City, Deacon Paulino Juárez has written the word “God” with arrows pointing to the words image and likeness. 

Next to “God” are adjectives that describe God --- all of them dictated by the catechumens in this Spanish-speaking RCIA group that Deacon Juárez is leading. Among them: honesto (honest), fuerte (strong), misericordioso (merciful), justo (just), fiel (faithful) generoso (generous), amigable (friendly), paciente (patient), maravilloso (marvelous), amoroso (loving), virtuoso (virtuous), eterno (eternal), 

Now, holding a mirror in his hands, Juárez explains to his class that they have been made by God in God’s own image.

“What kind of image are you projecting?” the 52-year-old head of St. Genevieve’s Hispanic Ministry asks the gathering. “Let’s reflect on who we are and be sincere with your own selves.”

The 90-minute session runs quickly, as participants apply Scripture readings to their real-life experiences. But what strikes them the most is the life and example --- and tribulations --- of their own teacher.

“No wonder,” says parishioner Israel Peralta, who like many recently learned the struggles his teacher has endured the past two years. “That shows his honesty. He’s not only words, but he’s action.”

For two years Deacon Juárez --- facilitator of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Spanish diaconate aspirancy class --- carried “a heavy burden,” as he describes it. What was supposed to be a regular work day in 2009 at the Catholic chaplaincy at Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles, turned into a “great challenge,” he says.

On that day, while visiting inmates on his row as part of his prison chaplain ministry, he heard the sound of someone being beaten, according to the American Civil Liberties Union’s 2011 report, “Cruel and Usual Punishment: How a Savage Gang of Deputies Controls L.A. County Jails.” He walked towards the sound and was completely stunned to find three deputies brutally beating an inmate who was completely defenseless. “He appeared to be handcuffed and was not resisting in any way,” the deacon reported.

The inmate was left motionless; Juárez was left “shaking, overwhelmed with fear and apprehension.”

He reported the abuse immediately, following procedure, but it was not until September 2011 that jail authorities admitted abnormalities, after a media frenzy ignited by the ACLU’s report.

Deacon Juárez had set a new path. It was the first time a civilian had openly reported the abuse that for years had been alleged by inmates. The ACLU’s document also includes reports of abuses from an anonymous chaplain, a Southern California-based ACLU employee and a Hollywood producer.

‘You can do it’

It was not what Paulino Juárez envisioned when Claretian Missionary Father Frank Ferrante, archdiocesan coordinator of diaconate formation, recommended that he apply for an opening at Men’s Central Jail.

“This is for you,” Juárez recalls the priest telling him while handing him an empty form. When Juárez, then in diaconate formation and doubtful about his credentials, asked why he was being considered for that kind of job, Father Ferrante replied, “You can do it. Fill it out and send it. Do it.”

That was in 1998. Since then Juárez --- ordained a deacon in 2001 --- has been taking “small steps” as he has grown in his ministry, explains St. Joseph of Carondelet Sister Suzanne Jabro, who interviewed him for the position. But to report what he witnessed was anything but small, adds Sister Jabro, who has dedicated 38 years of her own life to prison ministry and restorative justice.

“He took a prophetic stance,” she said of the deacon’s actions, “and when you do that you stand alone. It is very risky what he did, but he did it because he is a man of integrity and he was traumatized by the violence he saw.”

Juárez also was praised by Deacon Craig Siegman, archdiocesan director of diaconate formation.

“Deacon Paulino did the right thing,” he wrote in a recent letter to candidates currently in diaconate formation. “He came forward because he knew that if he didn’t, nothing would change. He knew that someone had to speak out for what was right and just. If not him, who?”

Juárez’s actions bespeak deacons’ responsibility to promote charity and justice, said Siegman, who urges them to speak on behalf of the marginalized.

 “As deacons we are called to be icons of Jesus the Servant,” Siegman wrote. “Yet, when we look at Jesus' life, he seemed to do very little in the way of charity, but instead focused his energies primarily on issues of justice. He pointed out where the culture of the society in which he lived was wrong and challenged his society to change their ways.”

The deacon’s boldness was also commended by Auxiliary Bishop Gabino Zavala, chair of the U.S. Bishops’ restorative justice committee.

“He did something very courageous, speaking his conscience,” Bishop Zavala told The Tidings. “Christ asked to visit those in prison and it’s very important to follow His command. Everyone should be treated with dignity. He [Juárez] is very committed and dedicated.”

“Paulino has chosen to stand right next to the people that have been oppressed and abused and treated in inhuman ways,” added Javier Stauring, co-director of the archdiocesan Office of Restorative Justice, who has accompanied Deacon Juárez since he first reported the abuse in 2009. “It takes a lot of courage because the possibility of retaliation is real. When you walk inside these institutions, you hear about injustice so frequently that one becomes numb to it.”

Stauring, who has worked more than 20 years in restorative justice and detention and prison ministries, said that since ACLU’s report was made public, efforts to remediate the anomalies have progressed in a way he has never seen before.

“Paulino set the trend,” Stauring noted, “by reporting everything through all the proper channels. He sincerely believes in the command, ‘I was in prison and you visited me,’ and connects with the inmates at that deep level. He is driven by his faith, which he takes to heart.”

Jesuit Father Michael Kennedy, co-chaplain of Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, was not surprised by what Juárez did, having seen him work with young people at the men’s detention facility.

“Perhaps the deeper story behind Paulino’s willingness to go public with his first-hand experience of violence comes from his own sitting and accompanying countless men whose lives have been broken,” said Father Kennedy. “Not to speak up for them would have been a sin.”

A strong Catholic faith

Growing up in Mexico, Paulino Juárez says his heart and desires were always aligned with his strong Catholic faith and values to the point of considering the priesthood. 

He graduated from high school at 15; at 18, after two years in medical school, he entered the seminary in Mexico, and was part of a group of seven seminarians who started a prison ministry. He finished his seminary formation in 1986, earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a master’s degree in spirituality two years later. Then, on a 32-day Ignatian spiritual retreat, he discerned the priesthood was not for him.

Yet he was always committed to serving his church. With the encouragement of several religious, he moved to the U.S. and started volunteering teaching Spanish confirmation classes for youth at St. Anne Church in Santa Monica. He then became a catechist at St. Francis Xavier (Maryknoll Mission) in Little Tokyo and later moved to St. Teresa of Avila in Silver Lake, where then-pastor Father Kenneth Sullivan asked him to help with the organization of the Latino ministry. 

Soon after, Father (later Auxiliary Bishop) Alexander Salazar was named St. Teresa’s pastor and invited Juárez to consider the diaconate, citing a need for more deacons who spoke Spanish. After a period of discernment, both Juárez and his wife Maricarmen decided to enter the diaconate formation process (in which wives accompany their husbands).

Although his previous seminary experience may have placed him further along in some areas of diaconate formation, Juárez started the program from the very beginning, “and he did it so that he could go together with his wife,” recalled Bishop Salazar, who worked with Juárez for 10 years until he became a bishop in 2004. “One of the things that stand out for me is that Maricarmen said, after some years into the formation, ‘I really understand my husband much more now.’”

Both Paulino and Maricarmen understood their role in the parish, and their marriage was enhanced by the formation as well, explained the bishop.

“He is a natural teacher of God’s word, a natural homilist,” said Bishop Salazar. “He was able to bring the word alive in the hearts of the people by his own style as a reflection of his own marriage, and as a reflection of the work he had done in the community.”

Several years ago, cutbacks within the archdiocese necessitated the reduction of some positions in detention ministry. In response, several pastors offered financial support to keep positions open and Juárez was able to maintain his at Men’s Central Jail thanks to generous support from American Martyrs Church, Manhattan Beach; its pastor, Msgr. John Barry; and its outreach ministry, Matthew 25.

 “If a situation presents itself, Msgr. Barry responds to the needs of the Church,” Bishop Salazar said. “He is a tremendously generous and supportive pastor in ministry, even beyond his own parish.”

“Gratitude comes from us,” Msgr. Barry said. “Paulino’s ministry represents what we are trying to do at our Church --- the implementation of Matthew 25; serving our souls by ministering in prisons. I have such admiration for him and his ministry; it takes a whole lot of risk.”

For his part, Juárez replied, “This is my way of thanking Msgr. John Barry and the American Martyrs community, by being an instrument of change, and so on behalf of my family I want to thank and let them know that their support is not in vain.”

‘Serving with a smile’

“What Paulino has gone through is not easy; it has taken a toll on him and his family,” said Father Alden Sison, St. Genevieve’s pastor. “We’re very happy with his work, very dedicated.”

“He’s always serving us with a great smile,” said RCIA student Rosalia Lara. “He is very supportive of the community.”

“Speaking truth to power is always risky and always costly,” Father Kennedy said. “Yet, paradoxically, it is the only way that Paulino found freedom and began conversation with the department to be free of excessive power.”

Deacon Juárez said things have started changing at the jail and he has great hope that they will continue changing. His colleagues agree.

“Putting the word out made the community aware of the injustices,” Stauring said. “Paulino’s efforts are going at a much larger scale, leaving a legacy so that those inmates coming to County Jail don’t run into the same abuse.”

As difficult as it was to witness and then come forward to report what he saw, Juárez is bolstered by knowing that he tried his best to follow the teaching of Jesus.

“One of the things that I found meaning in the words of Jesus is that the truth will set you free,” said Deacon Paulino. “Everything starts at baptism, and as baptized Catholics, as members of the Church, of the body of Christ; we have to keep looking for ways to build His Kingdom, actively, consciously, truthfully.”

And he summarizes his experience with a tribute to his parents.

“To them,” he said, “I owe the foundation of who I am: a person who tries to live by the values they taught me, such as loyalty to the Word of God and commitment.

“Without values we can’t have faith, and without faith and values we can’t keep our loyalty to the Word. The three things go together.”

For more information about Restorative Justice, call the archdiocesan Office of Restorative Justice, (213) 438-4820. For the ACLU report, visit www.aclu-sc.org/documents/view/384.

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