An hour or so before midnight, the two Oxnard police officers pulled their cars alongside each other on a deserted road. Childhood friends and former altar boys, they now patrolled the streets of La Colonia, the working-class Latino neighborhood of their youth.
That evening last fall, Manuel Vega bypassed the usual small talk and asked his buddy about something that had been bothering him lately. He wanted to know if his friend was also sexually abused by a priest from their childhood.
“Did Father Fidencio molest you?”
Vega said his friend looked stunned, and then replied, “Springtime in the sixth grade.”
Within a few days, Vega found six other former altar boys who said they had been molested by Fidencio Silva, a priest who was last reported working in Mexico for his order, the Missionaries of the Holy Spirit. In a television interview this year, Silva denied the allegations.
But in the following months, Vega couldn’t find an attorney to take the case. Half a dozen lawyers turned him down, most saying he didn’t have a chance because his statute of limitations had run out.
Then last March, one of the nation’s more aggressive attorneys in sexual abuse cases against the Roman Catholic Church agreed to take up Vega’s cause, playing the odds that California lawmakers would pass a bill that would lift the statute of limitations in molestation lawsuits for one year, beginning Jan. 1.
So far, the gamble has paid off. With Vega and other survivors acting as lobbyists, the California Legislature unanimously passed the law this year.
Hundreds of lawsuits are expected to be filed beginning Thursday. But for the church, Vega may be among the most formidable of the plaintiffs whose cases can now go forward: a lifelong Catholic, married to a devout Catholic and father of two; winner of the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for Heroism, the service’s highest peacetime award; police officer of the year; Navy reservist; revered in Oxnard’s Latino community; unafraid to speak publicly about his claims of sexual abuse by a priest; and a police officer who has found nine others with similar stories of alleged abuse by Father Silva.
“I give Manny Vega credit. If he can do it, others can,” said an alleged victim of another priest who decided to come forward because of Vega’s public stance. (The Times doesn’t identify victims of molestation if they prefer to remain anonymous.)
Vega’s voice never falters when he talks about the details of the alleged abuse or the ripple effects it has had on those around him, including his mother, a lifelong Catholic. She wonders if she’s to blame for her son’s alleged abuse. She has stopped going to church and cries as she drives by her former parish.
“In my job, I see a lot of victims from someone who loses their cell phone to people dying in my arms,” said Vega, a compact man with a military-style haircut, wide face and friendly smile. “I’m not going to be a victim. Something inside of me said, ‘No, I’m not going to let it.’ ”
The Los Angeles Archdiocese said it will contest the new law, arguing that lifting the statute of limitations is unconstitutional and unfairly singles out the Catholic Church. Still, officials say they are committed to helping molestation victims, no matter how old the incidents.
“In addition to providing counseling and support, the archdiocese believes that legitimate victims of sexual abuse by clergy deserve consideration of compensation for their suffering,” spokesman Tod Tamberg said. “This was true prior to the passage of [the new state law], and it is true today.”
As an altar boy, Vega said, he was molested by Father Silva from about age 12 to 15 in a variety of settings: the church, the sacristy, the rectory and on outings to the beach and mountains.
For almost two decades, Vega said, he pushed the memories into his subconscious. After graduating from high school in 1984, he spent close to nine years in the Marines, working as a sniper. In 1989, he rescued men from a helicopter crash that killed 19 Marines. It wasn’t until he left the military in 1992 and entered the Los Angeles Police Academy that memories of the alleged molestation began to surface during training classes on how to handle incidents of sexual abuse.
He and his wife were married in the Catholic Church, but he kept making excuses for not attending Sunday Mass. Two years ago, he told his wife about the alleged abuse.
“It was just a relief because I didn’t have to continue making excuses,” Vega said. “But it bothered me then and bothers me now that the church that had been a staple of my life was taken away from me.”
By the end of last year, he weighed the potential fallout from his public disclosure, and decided to go forward.
“Would I lose respect on the street?” Vega recalled asking himself. “What will my fellow officers and family say? How is this going to test everyone’s faith?”
Vega said the emotional effects of childhood molestation don’t necessarily conform to the current statute of limitations, which allows lawsuits to be filed until the age of 26 or three years after you first realize the link between physical and emotional damage and the sexual abuse.
“At least for me, it wasn’t until this particular year that I realized exactly what happened,” said Vega, 36. “And there was no ignoring it anymore.”
After finding seven other alleged victims, Vega met with them around the dining room table in his Oxnard home. The group included two other police officers, two corporate executives and an attorney. Eventually, two more alleged victims came forward. Vega and the other men filed suit in May, knowing that they could not proceed very far without a change in the law. So Vega went to Sacramento to lobby lawmakers and testify before committees for the need for legislation that allowed the statute of limitations to be lifted in molestation cases.
“I know I personally helped get that law passed,” Vega said. “The new law … will bring a sense of closure to the victims but not to the priests. They will still have to answer to God. “