I don’t know if Aaron Vargas, the Fort Bragg man who was scheduled to go on trial this month for killing his longtime sexual abuser, is by baptism a Roman Catholic. But I suspect during his lifetime he encountered the same icy indifference of those in authority not unlike that being offered up by Catholic Church elders worldwide.
Much has been written during the past two decades of the abuse suffered by young Catholic boys at the hands of errant priests, a minority among many to be sure. The Diocese of Santa Rosa, which stretches from Santa Rosa to the Oregon border, was a hotbed of widely reported abuse cases. Story after story out of Santa Rosa, and across the U.S. and Europe confirmed what victims already knew – church leaders knowingly protected the perpetrators.
Sister Jane Kelly, an Ukiah-based nun whose whistle blowing led to the downfall of then Bishop Patrick Ziemann, was shunned by church leaders for going public about problems within the Santa Rosa diocese. The diocese’s sad story turned even more bizarre when Catholics learned Bishop Ziemann confessed to engaging in sex with a former Ukiah priest. The priest said he was forced to disrobe for the bishop to keep from being turned over to police for suspected sexual abuse of young Latino men and theft of church money.
Church leaders knew of the bishop’s confession but kept secret his letter of resignation for nearly a year until a civil lawsuit forced his case out in the open. Only then did the bishop step down, and relinquish the authority granted to him by the Vatican in Rome.
So it’s no surprise to me or anyone else even remotely connected to tawdry tales of Catholic Church cover-up that victims of sexual abuse like Aaron Vargas often feel they have no place to turn for help.
What is disturbing, however, is how little those in power have learned over the past 20 years.
In Aaron Vargas’ case, it’s now known that other alleged victims including a stepson had years earlier told local police of their abuse at the hands of slain businessman Darrell McNeill. McNeill was never a priest, but he had enjoyed a similar position of trust as a Boy Scout leader on the Mendocino Coast. It seems no formal law enforcement investigation into the allegations against McNeill was ever launched despite the complaints.
As the Easter religious celebration approached, we witnessed the sad spectacle of church leaders at the Vatican defending Pope Benedict XVI for his handling of abuse cases while serving as a cardinal in his native Germany.
I think columnist Jon Carroll summed the situation up best in a commentary published Monday in the San Francisco Chronicle, calling it an outrage that the Vatican, for example, is “still blinded by its own self-righteousness.”
Carroll wrote about the moving Catholic ceremony in which church leaders including the pope wash the feet of a dozen men, “following the footsteps of Jesus and demonstrating the humility that he both taught and practiced.”
“Wouldn’t it be amazing – follow me here – if the pope would wash the feet of the men who had been abused by priests? It would be ecclesiastical in nature, not legal. It would be an expression of love; no documents would be signed. It would indicate that the pope understands his position; that he is a servant of the church, and not its master.”
But Carroll knows, and so do I, that most people in positions of authority do not see themselves anymore as public servants.
Wrote Carroll, “The pope is a big shot; he acts like a big shot; he is protected by lesser but still powerful big shots. This is power politics; this is about protecting the church. The victims of the abuse are secondary. Protect the institution.”
At the last minute Aaron Vargas is being offered a deal that will let him plea to voluntary manslaughter in McNeill's death. Vargas faces up to six years in prison if he accepts.
We can't ignore the fact that Aaron Vargas killed a man, whether it was intentional or not.
Had we listened earlier, however, to the voices of Aaron Vargas and the other victims this might not have happened. Why is that so difficult for the Vatican or any other authority figure to understand?