By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Michael pleaded with Ramos to explain why he had molested him for so long, and if there were others. “Why the molestation?” Ramos responded a short time later. “As best I can presently understand, it is a complication of mental, emotional and physical problems and illnesses all complicated by alcoholism.
“Were you the only one violeated [sic]?” Ramos continued. “No.”
Ramos blamed his pedophilia on physical, sexual, mental and emotional abuse he claimed to have suffered as a child and teen. “I am so sorry to put you through this living hell,” he wrote.
Ramos wrote another letter to Michael on Sept. 11 of that year. By this point, Ramos was paying for Michael's counseling. “I am a man without a country: a USA citizen, but unable to minister there,” he disclosed. Ramos begged Michael not to bother him further for fear that church officials would find out. “The only thing that I am trained to do is my ministry,” Ramos pleaded. “It's the only thing that I have; it's my life.”
Ramos sent three $70 checks to Michael to help with any therapy costs. He told the Orange diocese about Michael; the diocese told Ramos to send Michael to them. They refused to pay for any further treatment.
Frustrated, Michael asked for legal advice. No lawyer believed his story. It was the early 1990s, and the McMartin Preschool trial had soured the legal community on the legitimacy of alleged victims claiming to remember repressed childhood memories through therapy. Finally, Michael contacted Werner Meissner, a San Pedro lawyer and former Golden Gloves finalist. Meissner was also skeptical until he called the Orange diocese and asked if they could possibly work something out. Michael remembers that when Meissner called Orange diocesan spokesperson Lawrence Baird to talk about Michael's case, Baird yelled, “If you want anything, we'll see you in court,” and then hung up.
That was a mistake. “Werner is a fighter,” Michael says. “He's relentless. The last person you want to piss off in this world is Werner. He's got balls like no one else.”
A gold-plated statue of the Virgin Mary tops the tower of Mary Star of the Sea in San Pedro. You can see her from 831 Ninth Street: her arms outstretched in acceptance, head surrounded by a halo of stars, face turned toward the cluttered law offices of Werner Meissner.
Meissner talks fast but low through a bushy salt-and-pepper mustache; in another era, he might have played a Jimmy Cagney's sidekick. He no longer boxes but still maintains a lithe figure thanks to his black belt in karate. Meissner continues to exhibit the requisite bravado.
“I'm not going to let anyone abuse my clients,” he says. “Physically, legally or any other way.
“I'm the guy who started the damn thing,” Meissner snaps as he discusses the flood of lawsuits that have swept over the Los Angeles Archdiocese in the past two years, including three of his own. “I know more about Ramos than anyone. I'm the guru.”
It's partially true. In 1986, Father Andrew Christian Andersen pled guilty to 26 counts of molesting four altar boys while at St. Bonaventure in Huntington Beach. Just months before Michael hired Meissner, the Orange diocese settled a lawsuit with Mary Grant for $25,000 after she alleged that Father John Lenihan had sexually molested her during the late 1970s while he served at St. Norbert's in Orange. But lawyers who have sued the Orange diocese consider Meissner's 1991 case against Ramos the template for the stonewalling and vicious attacks the Orange diocese would levy against sex-abuse victims in the following decade.
“He's the one who started it all,” says John Manly, a lawyer who has sued church officials from Orange County to Alaska for harboring pedophile priests. “And he did it when no one else would. He and Michael had the courage to go through that fire by themselves. It's amazing.”
Meissner at first only wanted the Orange diocese to apologize to Michael and pay for his therapy. When diocesan officials wouldn't return his calls, Meissner hired private investigators. They found the diocese was still paying Ramos a stipend. They also turned up witnesses who claimed they had complained to church officials about Ramos.
But Meissner wanted more evidence. So while his investigators continued to dig, Meissner grilled Michael almost daily.
“It's easy to find evidence now because the courts make the diocese turn over those personnel files,” Meissner says. He's referring to the documents church officials keep on their priests that can include anything from phone bills to parishioner complaints to signed confessions of pederasty. “But back then, it was so vague. It's like a puzzle with a bunch of esoteric pieces coming into place. Michael would say, ‘I think there were pictures, I think we went to a motel,' and I would ask him to try to remember more so we could get them at the depositions.”
* * *
The pretrial depositions occurred in the offices of Meissner and Peter Callahan, then and now the Orange diocese's lead attorney on sexual-abuse cases. Ramos came up from Tijuana, still a priest but now harried and fatigued. He never acknowledged Michael's presence.