Miami archdiocese settles sex-abuse claims by former altar boy

03/16/2013 1:40 PM

03/16/2013 8:18 PM

When the Rev. Rafael Escala served at St. Timothy Catholic Church in West Kendall in the late 1980s, he caught a teenaged altar boy stealing $60 from the collection.

Escala threatened to report the teen to his father and the police. But rather than carry out the threat, the priest sexually abused the 16-year-old boy, according to the victim, who obtained a financial settlement from the Archdiocese of Miami in January.

“He told me that I had to ask God for forgiveness for stealing the money after he abused me,” said the victim, a Miami man who did not want to be identified. “He gave me penance.”

The victim also reached a settlement in the same agreement regarding molestation claims against a second priest, the Rev. Oscar Mendez, a Jesuit, while he served at St. Timothy in the 1990s.

The amount of the combined settlement, which named both priests along with the Miami archdiocese, was confidential. The victim said he decided to bring his two complaints to the attention of the archdiocese in late 2011, after following the criminal sex-abuse case of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

Until now, neither priest — Escala died at age 77 in 2009; Mendez is in his 80s and in poor health — has ever been implicated in the clergy sex-abuse scandal that engulfed the Catholic Church more than a decade ago.

What makes the St. Timothy cases different from many others is that the Miami archdiocese never alerted parishioners about the sex-abuse allegations lodged against both priests in November 2011. Notification is required under the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People adopted in 2002 by U.S. Catholic bishops.

“Dioceses are to be open and transparent in communicating with the public about sexual abuse of minors by clergy within the confines of respect for the privacy and the reputation of the individuals involved,” says Article 7 of the charter, which was adopted again in 2011. “This is especially so with regard to informing parish and other church communities directly affected by the sexual abuse of a minor.”

The victim in the St. Timothy cases said that when he and his lawyer reached the settlement earlier this year, he told the archdiocese “to do the right thing” by announcing the allegations against Escala and Mendez. He said he wanted the archdiocese to take this step not only for himself, but also for other minors who may have been abused by the two priests.

“But to this day, they never did it,” the victim told The Miami Herald in a recent interview. “They should have announced it at St. Timothy and every other church they’ve been at. They should have announced it at Belén,” the Jesuit preparatory school, where Mendez once taught and served as a spiritual counselor. Mendez now lives in a residence for Jesuits on the campus in West Miami-Dade.

Escala, a Cuban priest who was expelled from the communist country after the Castro revolution, first went to the Dominican Republic before coming to South Florida in 1977 to serve at multiple Catholic parishes, including St. Timothy, Our Lady of the Lakes in Miami Lakes and St. Monica in Miami Gardens.

Mary Ross Agosta, a spokeswoman for the Miami archdiocese, said the “alleged victim’s allegations” were “responded to quickly,” including a referral to the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office in January 2012. She said in an email that a civil lawyer for the archdiocese interviewed the victim to determine his “credibility,” but could not question Escala, because he was dead, nor Mendez, whose poor health prevented him from being questioned.

“Neither of these priests had been accused before,” Agosta told The Herald on Friday. “We had to be sensitive to the victim, but we also had to be sensitive to the reputations of the accused priests who could not defend themselves.”

As a result, Agosta said, the archdiocese chose to protect their names from the public. But she said parishioners at St. Timothy would be notified of the sex-abuse allegations against Escala in April. The reason, she said, is because April is Child Abuse Protection Month.

“Any notice to parishioners would be made at that time as Father Escala is no longer an active priest,” Agosta said.

Agosta added that the charter on the protection of children did not apply to the victim’s claims against Mendez, the Jesuit, because the victim was an adult at the time of the abuse.

Belen officials issued a statement regarding the allegations against Mendez.

“Neither the claim nor the allegations made involved Belen Jesuit Preparatory School, nor has the school ever received any notice of molestation or allegations of wrongful conduct involving Rev. Oscar Mendez,” said Teresa Martinez, the school’s director of communications.

“The alleged victim never attended Belen Jesuit. Rev. Mendez is retired and out of ministry. He has no involvement in school activities or with students.”

During the course of dozens of sex-abuse allegations against South Florida priests, the archdiocese has routinely removed the accused offender from active ministry pending the outcome of internal investigations by a lay committee and the archbishop. This was the policy under former Miami Archbishop John Favalora, who was replaced by Archbishop Thomas Wenski in 2010. As part of that process, the archdiocese has notified parishioners of any accusations against a priest in their parish.

The most recent example of that transparency under the U.S. Catholic bishops’ charter:

In October, the Miami archdiocese placed the Rev. Rolando Garcia, who had served as the pastor of St. Agatha Catholic Church in West Miami-Dade since 2001, on leave while it investigated a fourth sex-abuse complaint lodged against him. The archdiocese alerted parishioners and families at the church and school almost immediately. The internal probe is still pending.

In three previous instances of abuse allegations, Garcia was placed on suspension during internal investigations and later restored to his leadership post.

The victim in the St. Timothy case said he met Escala, an associate pastor, while serving as an altar boy. The victim later attended a local Catholic high school and planned to go to St. John Vianney College Seminary to become a priest. During the 1980s, Escala also served as the spiritual director at the seminary, a prominent position, while teaching Latin.

But the abuse incident, which he said involved oral sex, radically changed his view of the priest, the Catholic Church and himself. He said that he became fearful of Escala, who told him to remain silent about the abuse while threatening to report the theft of St. Timothy’s collection money to his father or the police. The victim said he stole the money to take his friends to the movies.

But foremost, the victim said Escala exploited his longtime desire to enter the priesthood as a “fear tactic.”

“I started freaking out,” he told The Herald.

Instead of attending the seminary, he said he drifted away from the Catholic Church and adopted a hedonistic lifestyle.

But in his early 20s, he returned to Miami and meandered back to St. Timothy. He said Mendez, an associate pastor at the church in the early1990s, repeatedly touched his private parts. “I kept discouraging him,” he said.

Both instances took their toll on the victim, who developed a serious gambling problem as an adult while running his own business and starting a family.

“For a long time, I believed I was at fault,” he said. “I tried to ignore it, but it was always there.”

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