During Holy Week at the Cathedral, a Man's Lonely Vigil

By Steve Lopez
Los Angeles Times
April 18, 2003§ion=/printstory

The bus pulled up to the cathedral and out stepped the students of St. Mary Magdalen, filing past the decorated cop who is Cardinal Roger M. Mahony's worst nightmare.

The students, in smart blue uniforms, were here for a tour of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in the middle of Holy Week. So they paid little attention to the Oxnard cop, who says he was molested when he was roughly their age, and carries a sign saying:

"Victims deserve truth and honesty."

Manuel Vega, 36, began his eight-day vigil and fast outside the cathedral last Sunday. He is one of the victims in a class-action suit involving an Oxnard priest, but that's not why he's here.

Nor is he here because of the former priest who was ordered Tuesday to stand trial on 29 felony counts of molestation -- the same priest Mahony transferred to nine different parishes after the cleric confessed to the cardinal that he had molested two or three boys.

Vega -- a decorated cop and former Marine, a family man and a committed Catholic -- is out here for another reason.

Last May, Cardinal Mahony proclaimed: "We want every single thing to be out, open and dealt with, period." But he had a change of heart and now argues that certain files are confidential, and keeping them secret is his constitutional right, despite the demands of prosecutors.

How can it be? Vega asks. How can he hide behind complex law when the issue is simple morality?

Vega is using vacation time for this vigil, sleeping in the rain some nights. This was the week it had to be.

Holy Week.

"As Catholics know, a lot of our beliefs are based on Easter week and the passion of Christ that occurs in the liturgy," Vega said. "The betrayal, the suffering, He even agonized by Himself, so in some sense you could compare that to what I and other victims have gone through -- the agonizing over a betrayal."

I asked Vega what character Mahony represented in this Holy Week passion play.

"Judas," he said. "Judas sold out Jesus for 30 pieces of silver."

Vega said Mahony came out and tried to make amends one night this week. The cardinal brought him a set of rosary beads he claimed were from the pope.

"He said he was sorry about what had happened, and, 'Here, let me give you these.' "

If it was meant to win Vega over, it didn't work. Vega said he accepted them only because he did not want to appear rude.

Mahony also brought out rosary beads for Vega's parents one night, offered them shelter and told Vega he hoped all legal matters would soon be resolved.

He can only resolve them, Vega argued, by following his own advice and opening his files. Anything less and the obvious conclusion is that like Boston's former cardinal, Bernard Law, he must have something to hide.

If Mahony is Judas, I asked, who is he betraying?

"He's betraying what he stands for," Vega said, arguing that as the leader of 5 million Catholics, Mahony has an obligation to truth and justice.

"Is he Judas?" Vega asked, reconsidering his own argument. "Or is he Pontius Pilate, because he's washing his hands of this whole thing? He's not Judas, the more I think about it. He's Pilate."

Vega asked if we could sit down on the curb. It was the fourth day of his fast and he was weary up there on the mount at Temple and Grand.

"Mahony is in his $189-million cathedral, and while he sleeps in there, I'll stay out here in the gutter, where he's left the victims."

Vega said he grew up surrounded by gangs while his immigrant parents picked strawberries in Oxnard, and the church was "the only shining light in my life." He can't stand by now and let anyone tarnish it.

Vega said that during his vigil, he has been cursed and blamed.

"One lady came by and yelled that I needed to forgive myself. I asked why and she said it was my fault because I had accepted the abuse."

But Vega has also been shown support by parishioners and some priests. He said three people, including one from San Diego, have come by to say his vigil inspired them to tell their own molestation stories for the first time.

He's tired, hungry, cold and dirty, but still a committed Catholic, and not until after Mass on Easter Sunday will he go home.

It's a small sacrifice, Vega said. This is the week God gave up his only son.

What has Mahony sacrificed but the truth?


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