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Hispanics Still Backing Catholic Leaders, For Now


May 1, 2002
Copyright © 2002
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

PHOTO: Monica Almeida/The New York Times

Moises Soriano praying in front of a mural of the Virgin of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico, painted on a wall near a Los Angeles market.

ZUSA, Calif., April 29 – The ladies of the Guadalupe Society of St. Frances of Rome church had finished serving tamales and tripe soup at their communion breakfast last Sunday when they heard the protesters arrive.

A small group had gathered outside the church because its pastor had recently been accused of sexually abusing children. The protesters, who said they were victims of priests in other parishes, wanted to encourage St. Frances's parishioners to speak out against abusive priests.

But instead of reflecting their rage, Gloria Calderone and other Mexican-American women of the Guadalupe Society formed a chain to prevent the protesters from getting near the church, set in the heart of this largely Mexican-American city 20 miles east of Los Angeles. Other parishioners joined the fray and one tried to grab a placard from a protester, striking him on the chest. The protesters called the police and pressed charges.

The ladies of the Guadalupe Society are sorry that it came to that, but they are not sorry they took action.

"The way we were brought up as Mexicans, as Catholics, we could never disgrace the church the way those people did," said Ms. Calderone, secretary of the society, which is dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico.

If there is one group whose loyalty the Roman Catholic Church in the United States is counting on as it tries to repair the damage caused by revelations of sexual abuse by priests, it is the 21 million Hispanic-American Catholics who make up more than 30 percent of all Catholics in the nation. Driven by high birth rates and continued immigration, Hispanics are responsible for 71 percent of the church's growth over the last 40 years.

So far, that loyalty has remained steadfast. While other Catholics have criticized the church, calling for the resignation of high officials and withholding donations, many Hispanics have offered unwavering support. Recent immigrants from Latin America are particularly loyal, respectful of the church not just because of its dominance in their home countries, but also because of the support it offers newcomers to the United States.

But while allegiance among Hispanics is strong now, there are worrisome signals for the future. As immigrants become more established, they begin to slip the church's bonds. Less formal churches with lay ministers have siphoned off hundreds of thousands of Catholics in the United States, many of them Hispanic.

Still, Catholic leaders are counting on most Hispanics to remain faithful. While the confrontation in Azusa was more dramatic than most, the support shown there is fairly common in Hispanic parishes, especially here in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which has 4.6 million Hispanics, far more than any other American diocese.

A week before the scuffle, some 3,000 Hispanic Catholics marched through downtown Los Angeles in a show of support for the church.

"As a Catholic seeing what was going on in the media I was disturbed," said Noel Diaz, who organized the march.

Mr. Diaz represents an important movement in the diocese, the lay evangelical Catholic ministry called El Sembrador, The Sower, which he founded 18 years ago.

"I thought, who's coming out to support those good priests who have left behind everything to serve the people," Mr. Diaz said in an interview at the Los Angeles convention center where he was about to preach to approximately 1,000 Hispanic Catholics.

Mr. Diaz is organizing another march for June.

Although they do not condone the actions of abusive priests or the church leaders who tried to hide what they did, Hispanic Catholics seem to have a greater tolerance of scandal than other Catholics.

"Hispanics accept the fact that something is going on now in their church and they are concerned about what the Holy Father is saying in Rome, but their reality is very local," said Ronaldo Cruz, director of the secretariat for Hispanic affairs in the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. "Hispanics understand the frailty of men."

Hispanics, especially recent immigrants, tend to see the church as a refuge in a harsh new landscape of rules and laws.

"When they come to this country, very few things work for them, especially if they don't have legal status," said Timothy Matovina, an associate professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame who has studied Hispanic Catholics. "Some of them say that the church is the one place in this country where they finally feel at home."

Devotion is ingrained in the traditions of their home countries, where the relative absence of competing faiths has helped create an almost universal acceptance of Catholicism. Widespread corruption among government officials and police officers has only reinforced respect and admiration for priests and the church.

Those attitudes help explain why parishioners at St. Frances of Rome have supported their priest, the Rev. David F. Granadino. Father Granadino, who was born in East Los Angeles, is being investigated by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department because of accusations that he touched children inappropriately. He took a leave of absence from the parish in March. No formal charges have been brought against him.

Dan Scott, the detective who is supervising the investigation, said three adults from another parish have said they were molested by Father Granadino in the mid-1980's.

Still, parishioners are standing by their pastor. Edward Contreras, whose 16-year-old son, Eddie, has been an altar boy at St. Frances, thinks the investigators are overreacting. He said one accusations against the priest involved his massaging the shoulders of a boy who had just returned from a group trip to an amusement park.

"I know what happened because I was there," Mr. Contreras said. "The boy told Father David he hurt himself on one of the rides. Father is always touching shoulders like that. That's his way."

But the loyalty that has strengthens bonds with the church in troubled times may also cause blind spots.

"They refuse to blame their priests for anything," said Jim Falls, a member of the Southern California chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. He was the protester hit by the parishioner at St. Frances last week.

Mr. Falls, who said he was abused by a priest when he was a teenager, said the attitude at St. Frances was typical of Hispanic Catholics he had dealt with. When a priest speaks to Hispanics, he said, "whatever he says might as well be coming out of the lips of Jesus Christ."

This is likely to change. Several factors threaten to loosen the bonds between the church and Hispanics, including the natural assimilation of immigrants and a shortage of Hispanic-American priests.

What is likely to sustain the Hispanic church is the belief that the institution is bigger than the priests themselves.

"The accusations against our pastor are hurting us very much, but our faith is not based in him," said Joe Rocha, a Mexican-American parishioner at St. Frances.

But other Hispanic-Americans who have drawn such distinctions between clergy and faith have moved away from the formal church in growing numbers. As many as 600,000 Catholics a year, by one estimate, leave their parishes for Pentecostal churches and other religions with lay ministers and simpler rules.

Others remain Catholic in name only and, like Moises Soriano of East Los Angeles, create their own form of worship.

On a recent Saturday, Mr. Soriano took a dozen roses to an informal shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe that is painted on the wall of a parking lot near the central Mexican market in Los Angeles. He waved the roses in a sign of the cross, then placed them at the foot of the virgin.

"I never trusted priests anyway," Mr. Soriano said.

Still, as a baptized Catholic, he said he could not help but be concerned by all he had heard about what priests had done and how the church responded

"It's never going to be the way it was before," he said.

And that, he suggested, was probably good.

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