King of the County Pedophiles

The life, death and final escape of Eleuterio Ramos

The parishioner remembers a potluck that Latino parishioners held for Ramos the weekend before he left for what they thought was his drinking. “The church leaders told us he was going to Tijuana for a couple of months,” says the parishioner. “We gave him a money tree.”

One thing always bothered Jaime, though. In his family album is a picture of Ramos during his sister's first communion. Ramos has his hands on the girl's shoulders. Tightly. Even as a child, Jaime remembers, “the picture seemed odd to me. I never saw a priest so close to a child like Father Al was to my sister. Even though he was a family friend, it seemed weird. The photo always fascinated me growing up.”

Jaime became an altar boy the year after Ramos left. He was 7. “I could've been the next one,” he says. “What if he stayed there just one more year? I've always stayed with that question.

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

“But I can't say anything negative about him,” he added. “It wasn't until I read the articles in 1993 that I found out he was a monster.”

Years passed. Ramos left the priesthood and disappeared. Michael went on with his life. Meissner went on to successfully settle four other Ramos cases. So many new Ramos victims contacted the diocese that an Aug. 17, 1994, note by Monsignor Urell regarding an alleged Ramos victim is simply headlined, “Another one.” Up until 2002, the diocese secretly paid for the therapy of at least two Ramos victims.

After Ramos and a couple of other priests were successfully sued during the early 1990s, the sex-abuse spotlight dimmed on the Orange diocese. But in 2001, John Manly and Kathy Freberg sued Father Michael Harris and the Orange and Los Angeles dioceses on behalf of Ryan DiMaria. DiMaria, who now works with Manly's law firm as an attorney, alleged the popular principal had molested him while a junior at Santa Margarita High School in the early '90s. Church officials not only covered up DiMaria's case, Manly claimed, but also knew about other sexual incidents involving Harris and students.

As part of the Harris suit, Manly deposed former Orange Bishop Norman McFarland, who replaced Bishop Johnson shortly after Ramos left for Tijuana. It was the first time a church leader had been deposed since Meissner's case against Ramos a decade before.

Manly asked McFarland about Ramos. McFarland replied he never met the priest but did know about Michael's lawsuit.

A transcript of the deposition shows Manly repeated Michael's name after McFarland mentioned it. Lawyers often repeat key phrases for dramatic effect; Manly says he repeated Michael's name out of shock. Manly and Michael both graduated from Mater Dei in 1982, and their friendship had blossomed in the years since.

Manly knew that Meissner had sued Ramos multiple times in the early 1990s, but all the cases were under seal, and he didn't know the names of the victims. So he never suspected a priest had abused Michael. Especially Ramos, whose ghastly background Manly had just discovered.

Manly requested a break. He went to the restroom and threw up. The thought still makes this mountain of a man cry.

“I found out about my friend's abuse thanks to McFarland,” Manly says. “Gee, that's a great present.”

Manly and Freberg successfully won a $5.2 million pretrial settlement against Harris and the Orange diocese a couple of months after the McFarland deposition. He returned to his specialty, real-estate law. But the Catholic sex-abuse scandal was about to explode across the United States. Thanks in part to the DiMaria case, the California Legislature passed a bill in late 2002 that lifted the statute of limitations on molestation cases in civil suits so that victims could file during the 2003 calendar year.

Manly's office was soon fielding phone calls from people who claimed Orange County priests molested them as children. One perpetrator kept popping up: Big Al.

“How do you go from a first communion service to radical, evil shit?” Manly says with disgust. “I don't think I'll ever understand. This was beyond mental illness. If Satan exists, Ramos had it in him to do this.”

Tales of Ramos' ferocity stole Manly's sleep. How Ramos took children to porn stores in San Diego so seedy they were off-limits to armed forces personnel. Of a camping trip where the boy claimed Ramos molested him, and that “he noticed that the priest and four boys were missing, and that they were all in the priest's cabin.” Of a boy escaping from an East Los Angeles motel room at 4 a.m., having to take the bus back to Orange County. Photographs. Alcohol. Vibrators.

Michael stayed away. Even when Manly and Michael met for their 20th class reunion in 2002, neither brought up the subject. By this time, Michael had joined the diocese's Sexual Misconduct Oversight and Review Board, implemented by court order in 2001 after the DiMaria-Harris case. It was the same idea Michael had suggested a decade earlier.

“It pissed me off they started it so late,” Michael seethes. “Imagine all the lives we could've saved. But I still joined. Naively, I thought I'd be of service.”

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