I Would Have Nothing to Offer

Photo by Yoshitake OkadaAttendees of the South Orange County Community College District Board's Nov. 19 meeting bowed their heads in silence as trustee Tom Fuentes began the evening's invocation. The former seminary student praised the Almighty in a solemn baritone, asking Him to bless President Bush and the troops while pleading for moral guidance. “Help us to do what is right and what is good in the service of our people,” Fuentes concluded, eyes closed.

Stirring words. But Fuentes, who moonlights as chairman of the Orange County Republican Central Committee, could better comfort dozens of sex-abuse victims suing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange by talking with authorities about their cases. The victims say Fuentes may have information critical to their claims against the governing see of Orange County Catholics.

Their claim rests on the idea that Fuentes may be the best-connected lay Catholic in the county, building on the 12 years he spent as communications director for the diocese, beginning in 1976. Even these days, he can count as trusted friends such prominent Catholic businessmen as developers Tim Busch and William Lyon, as well as hamburger emperor Carl Karcher, all heavy contributors to both the Republican Party and the diocese.

“Fuentes might have known all about the priests that committed crimes [during his career],” said a legal expert who requested anonymity. “He would have been in contact with them and the bishop. I mean, his office was next to the bishop's while he worked for the diocese. All I know is that Fuentes was there quite a while. If he was there two years, that's a significant period of time. But if you're there eight or 10 more years, you're embedded in the system.”

Despite such assertions, District Attorney officials investigating the Diocese of Orange and lawyers representing church abuse victims have not yet talked to Fuentes.

When Orange County broke away from the Los Angeles Diocese in 1976, Fuentes was the new diocese's first communications director. Fuentes served in that position until 1988, reporting directly to the bishop as the diocese's head PR man, handling all media requests and press releases, producing the diocesan newsletter and radio show, and prepping church officials for interviews.

“The position is important in the sense that the communications director is the single voice of the bishop in speaking to the press,” said a Catholic expert who requested anonymity. “He would have access to what the bishop wanted him to say publicly, he would bring questions to the bishop regarding what the press wanted, and he would handle the public relations and press in times of celebration and distress.”

Church officials were so pleased with Fuentes that then-Bishop William Johnson nominated him in 1983 as a Knight of Malta, a sort of Hall of Fame recognition for laity granted by the pope. A couple of years later, Fuentes was invested as a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre, an even more exclusive Catholic fraternity whose explicit job is to defend the faith in Palestine but today serves as a powerful social and political network.

Fuentes' tour of duty coincided with the dates of many of the sexual abuse and molestation incidents involving Diocese of Orange priests cited in pending and settled lawsuits. At least four priests—Siegfried Widera in 1985, Eleuterio Ramos and Andrew Christian Andersen in 1986, and Gary Pacheco in 1987—were removed from their posts or reassigned due to sexual misconduct during Fuentes' tenure, while at least seven other priests have disclosed that they committed their crimes during that period. In addition, two lawsuits filed last month contend that the diocese's Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana was a hotbed of teacher-student sex abuse during the 1980s. But there's been only one conviction of an Orange County priest: Andersen was convicted in 1986 of molesting four altar boys while serving at Huntington Beach's St. Bonaventure Church. He wasn't sent to prison until 1991, three years after Fuentes resigned his position.

Given that overlapping chronology, one church molestation victim is astounded he remains unquestioned. “The issue with Fuentes is that no one has ever bothered to ask him whether he knows anything,” fumes Joelle Casteix. A 33-year-old Corona del Mar resident, she recently filed a lawsuit alleging a teacher sexually abused her while she attended Mater Dei in the 1980s. “Someone should ask him, 'Did you know anything?' He's never even made a statement.”

Approached after the community college board meeting, Fuentes answered the question directly. He insisted he knew nothing about abuse occurring during his term as the diocese PR man, and denied that his position as head of the county Republican Party required him to speak out on the sex scandal.

“It's a tragedy of enormous proportion that is a source of sadness for any Catholic,” Fuentes stated. “But my public position has no rank in the church. I share the sadness and concern of all Catholics.”

Would he give a deposition if asked by authorities or sex abuse victims?

“Why would anyone do that?” he responded. “I would have nothing to offer.”

But suppose someone asked him to take the stand?

“I would serve my capacity as a citizen,” he replied

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