The Archdiocese of Los Angeles has settled 17 cases alleging sexual abuse, including 11 involving Nicolas Aguilar Rivera, a priest from the Diocese of Tehuacan, Mexico. The $13 million settlement, made public Feb. 18, resolves a final group of cases in the “coordinated proceeding,” archdiocesanofficials said.
Rivera had been assigned to the archdiocese in March 1987. The archdiocese removed him from ministry after reports of abuse surfaced the following January. The priest returned to Mexico without informing archdiocesan leaders.
The other six settlements involved three claims alleging misconduct from 1999 to 2006 by John Malburg, a former teacher at Daniel Murphy High School; one case each naming former priests George Miller and Michael Nocita for alleged misconduct in 1977 and from 1980-82; and a case asserting 1977 misconduct by Rene Velemonte, who has no record of serving in the Archdiocese or being a priest.
“It has been the desire of the archdiocese to settle the civil cases of abuse and to provide support to the victims through the healing process,” the archdiocese said in a statement. “We continue to pray earnestly for all victims and their families so that they may find emotional and spiritual healing.”
The archdiocese restated its commitment to protect children and young people. While lawsuits have a conclusion, the healing process is ongoing.
“It’s not over for the people who have come forward,” said Suzanne Healy, coordinator of Victims Assistance Ministry for the archdiocese. “There are people in our pews that need to know that we welcome them — we want to hear their stories,” Healy said. “We are committed to ongoing pastoral outreach to anyone impacted by sexual abuse. It doesn’t matter how long ago it was.”
The archdiocese strives to create a culture that will no longer tolerate abuse, making it harder for predators to target children, according to Healy. In 2013, nearly 30,000 priests, employees and volunteers trained with the VIRTUS Child Abuse Prevention Program and each year about 200,000 children and youth participate in annual safe environment training.
The archdiocese has fingerprinted 132,000 adults who have contact with children and requires all volunteers or employees who have direct contact with children to go through training.
The National Catholic Risk Retention Group, Inc., existed before the sexual abuse scandal and the bilingual program identifies best practices for healthy organizational behavior. The archdiocese has trained more than 200,000 adults over the last 12 years.
Fingerprinting alone has its limits, said Katie Zeigler, primary VIRTUS facilitator at St. Brendan. While background checks can identify what perpetrators were caught doing in the past, VIRTUS teaches people to be attentive to behavior happening right now.
“There’s no amount of money that can undo the harm that’s been done,” said Zeigler, consultant for youth ministry and confirmation for the archdiocesan Office of Religious Education.
“There’s no doubt the church failed to keep these victims safe — and they should have been safe,” she said. “But we can’t go back in time. What we can do is influence what is going on now and what goes on in the future.”
The threat of sexual abuse isn’t going away, Zeigler said.
“The more people we have watching out for these threats, the less harm that will be done,” she said.
More than 1 million children and youth have received training in VIRTUS Children’s Teaching, Touching Safety and Good-Touch/Bad Touch program.
“Kids are empowered,” said Healy. “They’re made knowledgeable. They see something and now they can speak up — they know that they can say something and that they’ll be believed.”
Awareness, she said, is key in keeping children safe. Education makes it more likely that abuse will be reported sooner so that perpetrators can be caught before doing more harm. In some cases, the education may prevent the abuse all together.
“If I hear something, it is reported to law enforcement,” Healy said. “We have increased our reporting training.”
Healy, who’s served in her position since 2007, has met with victims — even in prisons. Two survivors of abuse now sit among the Clergy Misconduct Board, which makes recommendations to the archbishop on cases involving abuse.
“People have not been able to say this and have been carrying this deep, dark secret,” Healy said. “We want to be there for them with compassion. That’s what we’re all about.”
The local church is also looking at ways to prevent abuse in the future, working with the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office to provide training for the Cyber-Crime Symposium, Internet and Technology Safety Workshop at Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral. The training is also offered at the parish and school level.
“We’re here and we will continue to be here,” Healy said. “If you have been abused, we want you to come forward.”
To reach the Office of Victims Assistance Ministry, call (213) 637-7642.