IN HIS TWO DECADES AS ONE OF EAST L.A.'S MOST beloved and famous spiritual leaders, Father Juan Santillan excelled in many roles: as a gang counselor, a community activist, a miracle healer and an exorcist.
Last week, the legions who admired the politically connected and outspoken Santillan learned he has joined the infamous ranks of priests accused of molesting children. Lorenzo Najera, 36, a former altar boy, alleges that the priest molested him in the late 1970s at Santa Teresita Church in Boyle Heights.
Najera sued Santillan in March 1998, but the man's lawyer let the lawsuit expire for lack of strong evidence. The LAPD would not comment on the matter.
The 64-year-old Santillan has been living in Cochabamba, Bolivia, since 1998. Najera says the priest was transferred to escape facing his allegations. Santillan says he volunteered to go to South America after decades of stressful work in Los Angeles.
Santillan said he knew Najera and his family well, and is baffled by the accusations. “After 27 years he comes out and accuses me. Why?” Santillan said during a phone interview from Bolivia. “I feel sorry for him and his family, because I know that his father is ill, but his story just doesn't add up: That is why his case was thrown out.”
Najera alleges that the five years of abuse began when he was 12. “He would tell me that it was the will of God,” said Najera, now a ponytailed father of four who works as a waiter and is married to a physician.
A rotund man with a mustache and impatient gestures, Santillan grew up in the Chavez Ravine area in 1938, the son of a construction worker. Showing a knack for the spotlight even in his early years, Santillan was commissioned by Pope Paul VI to be a student representative to the Vatican's Commission on Justice and Peace. In 1969, the Piarist Fathers, a Spain-based order that runs three parishes on the Eastside, ordained him.
By the late 1970s, Santillan had established his reputation. He seemed to be into everything and everywhere: He was a police chaplain, a community activist, a board member of the city Recreation and Parks Commission and a supporter of then-Councilman Arthur K. Snyder over Mexican-American candidates.
Unknown to most of his friends in local politics and the media, Santillan was also one of the biggest stars in the Renovación Carismática (Charismatic Renewal), the biggest lay Latino Catholic movement in the last 30 years. Influenced by evangelical Pentecostalism, the followers of the Renovación are known to speak in tongues when filled with the Holy Spirit, and by their lively handclapping, feastlike services.
Still, Santillan had his worldly side as well, both critics and followers said. After Mass, he would often chain-smoke a pack of Marlboros; while counseling members of the Hazard gang and the Mexican mafia at the Ramona Gardens projects, he would join them for a beer.
In 1997, L.A. City Councilman Mike Hernandez was arrested by the LAPD on felony cocaine possession charges. Two months later, he returned to office and Santillan showed up in City Hall with a busload of parochial elementary students to welcome him back to the council chambers. And when the Los Angeles Times ran story after story on disgraced Councilman Richard Alatorre, Santillan led a protest against the paper.
DURING MOST OF THE 1980S, SANTILLAN was a star preacher for the Commerce-based Charisma in Missions, the biggest Charismatic Renewal ministry in the United States, said Vicky Davis, a recording artist who belonged to the ministry. She said the priest had such a magnetic aura that he could preach to crowds of 20,000-plus and hold their attention for hours. “I cannot believe it,” said Davis, 69. “I would say that he is my father, my mother . . . I never saw him do anything bad. I am with him.”
Many, like Davis and Ramon Canales, a schoolteacher and musician, credit Santillan with being their guiding light during their darkest hours. Davis, then in her late 40s, was a junkie and an alcoholic on the verge of suicide when as a last resort she went to see a priest who people said was also a brujo, or sorcerer.
“I was drunk and he didn't know me, but he singled me out and called me up to the altar and touched me on the forehead. I fell to the ground. I felt the most beautiful peace of my life,” Davis recalled. “He became my spiritual director: I quit drinking and drugs because of him.”
The scandal has managed to reach even to Cochabamba, where a local newspaper picked up the story that broke two weeks ago in La Opinión. Santillan said his parishioners are angry, and he fears the allegations will affect his work with others.
“I am not a martyr, but my boss was also accused of hanging around with sinners, publicans, prostitutes and thieves,” Santillan said. “And what a coincidence, this year on July 19 it will be 33 years since my ordination. My boss was also crucified at that age.”