King of the County Pedophiles

The life, death and final escape of Eleuterio Ramos

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Meissner and the Orange diocese settled Michael's case in 1992 before it went to trial, though it didn't become public until the following year. Despite Meissner's objections, the Orange diocese persuaded Judge Richard N. Parslow to seal the terms of the settlement because it involved a minor, even as they insisted on Ramos' innocence. As part of the settlement, Michael suggested the diocese start an 800 number where victims could report abuse, a panel to address pedophilia amongst priests, a zero-tolerance policy and the release of personnel files. He also asked for an apology from the church. He wrote the suggestions in Bishop Norman McFarland's office. The church declined each request.

“It was bad enough what happened, but then they treated him like dirt,” Meissner says. “Michael was just a kid going into puberty when the molestations happened. And then they didn't do anything about it. And now that they're being accused, they put him through hell again.”

Father Eleuterio Ramos
Father Eleuterio Ramos
Ramos as a young man.
Ramos as a young man.

Meissner says he told the church lawyers just as they were about to finalize the deal that all Michael ever wanted was an apology. The lawyers were silent.

“That's it?” one finally replied. “How about we just give him $5 and apologize?”

On Dec. 12, Mexicans across Southern California attend dawn Mass and venerate Our Lady of Guadalupe, a brown-skinned apparition of the Virgin Mary that is the patron saint of Mexico. According to legend, the Virgin appeared to the Indian peasant Juan Diego in 1531—just a decade after Cortés conquered the Aztec empire—and asked that the conquistadors build a cathedral in her name. Diego reported his encounter to Bishop Juan de Zumárraga, the man who introduced Roman Catholicism to Mexico. Zumárraga dismissed Diego's tale—why would the Mother of God appear to a mere native?—and demanded proof. Guadalupe provided it: on the spot where she appeared before Diego, roses bloomed in the winter snow. She instructed Juan Diego to gather them and present them to Zumárraga. Diego wrapped them in his tilma (cloak) and trudged back to the city. When he went to dump the roses at Zumárraga's feet, they were gone—replaced on his cloak by the magnificent image of Guadalupe. It's a miracle that draws millions of pilgrims to Mexico City each year even five centuries later.

Thanks to Eleuterio Ramos, the Virgin of Guadalupe is also the patron saint of the Orange diocese. When the diocese was founded in the fall of 1976, Ramos was made head of its Hispanic Commission. Latino immigrants were just beginning to transform Orange County, and the Catholic Church wanted to help. In 1977, under Ramos' guidance, the Hispanic Commission asked that the Orange diocese officially commemorate the feast day of Guadalupe. That Dec. 11, a couple of hundred people visited St. Edward the Confessor in Dana Point, where a shrine to Guadalupe was dedicated. Ramos delivered a short homily in Spanish.

This did not satisfy Ramos. In 1978, he had the diocesan Guadalupe memorial Mass moved to the Santa Ana Bowl. More than 7,000 attended. That Mass, as in most, Ramos wore a stole imprinted with the image of Guadalupe.

Ramos didn't limit his Latino activism to theological matters. On March 23, 1978, Sister Regina Gniot of Saint Joachim's in Costa Mesa wrote a note to Orange Bishop William Johnson expressing her admiration for Ramos. “I was at the board meeting of the Board of Supervisors yesterday when they took up the subject of medical care for illegal aliens,” Gniot wrote. “I just wanted to tell you that I was really thrilled when Father Ramos got up to the microphone to tell the supervisors that he was coming as a representative of the Catholic Church in Orange and was putting all that weight behind the proposal. I am sure that this was at least part of the reason why the measure was adopted.”

Ramos continued his Latino activism throughout his career in the Orange diocese. When he became pastor at St. Anthony Claret in 1985, Ramos placed Mexico's flag in the sanctuary, infuriating St. Anthony Claret's white parishioners. “When our Hispanic friends left Mexico, they did so for a better life in the United States. By so doing, they left their country and their flag behind,” one angry parishioner wrote to Ramos.

“In your love and zeal for our Mexican brethren,” another wrote, “you may have lost sight of the fact that this is the United States, not Mexico.” The flag stayed.

Ramos remains a popular figure among former Latino parishioners because of this legacy, and despite the molestations.

“He reminded me of a crazy, fun uncle,” says a former parishioner at St. Anthony Claret. “Most of the other priests didn't understand the needs of Latino Catholics. Father Ramos did.”

“He was the first priest we could relate to,” says Jaime, an Immaculate Heart of Mary parishioner who asked that we use only his first name. “At Immaculate Heart, we would always get white priests who spoke terrible Spanish and didn't care about our traditions. Ramos did.”

Ramos was a friend of Jaime's family and would dine at his house at least once a week. “I just remember a warm, kind man. Very chill.”

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