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By the Book 

Reacting to a molestation complaint at my old parish

Wednesday, Apr 24 2002
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HE BROUGHT SOLACE TO TROUBLED MINORS AS A JUVENILE-HALL chaplain. On the streets of Lincoln Heights, he befriended youths. Stories abound about Father Stephen Hernandez's mercy in helping save young lives caught up in gangs.

But last week, the mostly Latino parishioners of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church learned that Hernandez had joined the growing list of Catholic priests accused of molesting minors. On April 15, after detectives questioned Hernandez about the complaint, he cut his wrists and ingested pills in an apparent suicide attempt. He is in stable condition at an undisclosed hospital.

Father Thomas Baker, the pastor at Our Lady, told parishioners during Sunday's mass that the 68-year-old priest has been accused of molestation. "Father Esteban will remain on administrative leave until the investigation is over. He [Hernandez] is very sad. He needs our prayers," Baker told parishioners. "He has taught in high schools, in Cathedral [Catholic High School]. All of his life he has more or less been in these type of ministries. For a young man to do this is very sad for him . . . it is very difficult."

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L.A. Police Commander Gary Brennan would not give details about the case. The Los Angeles Archdiocese is cooperating with authorities, said spokesman Tod Tamberg.

As a Catholic who once considered taking up the priesthood -- having been accepted by the now-defunct San Fernando High School Seminary -- I am saddened by the current scandals. It is hard to accept that a priest at a parish I once relied on for support and spiritual growth could find himself in this kind of trouble. It has caused me to look back at my life at his parish, and examine some of the changes I have witnessed there.

WORD OF HERNANDEZ'S PROBLEMS CAME TO ME like a kick in the teeth. I'm a former parishioner of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, and it was the first time I had heard of this type of thing in my hometown parish.

I grew up a first-generation kid of Mexican parents in Lincoln Heights. Our Lady was a part of my family and thousands of the other Latino immigrant families who lived in the surrounding areas. I have fond teenage memories of going there to "Misas de Gallo" (midnight Christmas masses) as well as participating in the early-morning services every December 12, the day when all of Mexico celebrates the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

I was 12 years old when I came home from the movies one summer night in 1980, terrified by the visceral horror of The Exorcist. Plagued by nightmares, the next morning I went to Our Lady looking for holy water. Carlos, a layman in his mid-30s, soothed my fears by telling me that no person could become possessed by evil spirits unless in some way they permitted the demons to take control of their lives.

After giving me holy water, crucifixes and books to read, Carlos took me inside the temple and guided me toward a golden, shiny, domed case that rested upon a side altar. He told me that that was the tabernacle, and inside was where the Blessed Sacrament -- Christ's living flesh -- rested, waiting to be adored.

"No evil can harm you while you are here," Carlos said. I could almost feel an unworldly aura emanating from within the tabernacle. "This is the holiest place in the church."

I became an altar boy. Father Andrew Pisano, an Italian priest in his 60s -- about the same age as Hernandez -- was the pastor at Our Lady. He took me under his wing, allowing me to accompany him in his old Falcon to visit the sick as he anointed them with holy oil.

Like Hernandez, who has had open-heart surgery and has trouble getting around, Pisano suffered from respiratory maladies but remained a workaholic. Cold winter nights did not keep him from hearing the confessions of the terminally ill. He always wore a worn, black cassock and worked out of his austere, dimly lighted office furnished with old furniture that dated back to the 1940s.

I have no doubt that Pisano's example as well as those of various other lay leaders steered me away from the criminal lure that entices many local youths. The parish gave me my first break as a writer for a monthly youth-group bulletin.

Though I moved away from Lincoln Heights, my mother still lives there and is part of the parish, often greeting Hernandez during his many visits to the neighborhood. At Christmas, I often stop by my old church for midnight mass.

During the early 1990s -- after years of being away -- I paid a visit to Father Juan, who used to be a pastor there. He was a bearded young priest from Mexico who wore a jazzy multicolored jacket over his Roman collar. Father Pisano's office had been totally refurbished, decorated with elegant furniture over an expensive carpet surrounded by brightly colored walls covered with trendy paintings; delicate vases carried fresh flowers.

Like most of the Catholic Church in the country, Our Lady had changed. It was definitely not the church of my teens.

ON SUNDAY, PASTOR BAKER -- WHO DECLINED TO be interviewed -- who along with Father Gustavo Lara now runs Our Lady, told his flock that Hernandez came to his parish in January of 1997. He worked there until last week.

Though retired, Hernandez was very active in the neighborhood. My mother's neighbors often recall Hernandez visiting them, and telling them how much he loved working with youths, for whom he would buy clothes.

Some residents in the Rose Hill projects remember Hernandez's compassion the day one of the neighborhood's teenagers was gravely shot. "Padre Stephen," as parishioners called him, rushed to the young man's aid, putting pressure on his bullet wounds with his own shirt -- probably saving his life.

A well-spoken and fiery preacher, Hernandez -- who had been a literature professor -- often lashed out against religious hypocrisy, while he extolled churchgoers to love youths like the ones he ministered in jail. I sensed many of his honest and hard-working parishioners, themselves the victims of young street predators, found his homilies hard to swallow.

"If you cannot love everyone -- I mean everyone -- you cannot call yourself a Catholic," Hernandez told the faithful during a Sunday mass a week before his apparent suicide attempt.

On Sunday, most of the often-ebullient parishioners were ashen-faced, despite the beautiful, whispery rondallas played by a Mexican trio. Father Lara, a retired priest who also works in Our Lady, did not mention Hernandez, but told churchgoers that despite the bad times, they must remain faithful to the Church.

"Even if they laugh at us or mock us, we must have faith," Lara said. "Even if we have caused scandal, let this not impede us from following in the way of God."

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