Clergy abuse settlements can lead to new suffering
The Associated Press
David Guerrero lies curled like a small child in bed, his teeth chattering and his fever spiked at 104 degrees. He has left his room only once since he crawled home from his latest crystal meth binge three days ago, to let his mother drive him to the emergency room for his soaring temperature.
Now, Minerva Guerrero hovers close to her 41-year-old son, making a mental list of the day ahead: she must change his bed linens, nurse him, pick up his new prescriptions.
Sixty miles away and days later, Dominic Zamora rages at his father, who suspects he bought a house in someone else's name. You're not my father, Dominic screams. You just want my money. When the 36-year-old finally calls his parents three weeks later, he is drunk and angry at the world and most especially, at them.
This was not the future the Guerreros and the Zamoras imagined when their sons received millions from the Roman Catholic church to settle claims they were molested by their childhood priests. But that was before the money ushered in a new and never-ending nightmare.
The money was meant to soothe the victims' wounds and be a bridge to a better life, and for many it did. But for a few, the most deeply scarred, the six- and seven-figure checks have instead made things far worse.
For these victims, the money has seeped like a poison into every relationship and laid bare feelings of anger, mistrust, bitterness and guilt that have been buried deep in their families for years. It has fed drug habits and alcohol binges, divided siblings and fueled resentment in parents who walked through hell with their children, only to find rejection and blame on the other side.
Years after the settlements, these families, once united against the church, are slowly becoming divided and the money is in the middle.
"He's got a lot of hate inside of him because of what happened to him and he's passed it on to everybody in the family," said Robert Guerrero, who lives with his wife in a home his son David bought with settlement money. "I'm going to suffer when I go home tonight and when I go to sleep, I'm going to think about David and I suffer every time I think about him. That's just the way life is today."
Worse, these families have nothing to show for their emotional agony: The millions are gone, spent on flashy cars and art collections, drugs and alcohol and scams by investors who no longer return phone calls.
Wild spending and family dysfunction are common among people who come into fast money, said Steven Danish, a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University who's studied the psychology of lottery winners.
But clergy abuse victims, emotionally ravaged, are especially at risk: "All the stuff that is hidden and has been brooding down there all of a sudden has this way to escape," Danish said.
"There's a lot of unconscious, or subconscious, motivation to punish members of their family and maybe to punish themselves."
The agony of this small cluster of victims has been overlooked amid the stories of hundreds who have managed to move on after the money to become authors and attorneys, to kick drug habits, to find forgiveness.
But a half-dozen of these families have managed to find each other and create a measure of stability in their unhinged lives through regular potlucks and phone calls and e-mails. And they are convinced they are not alone.
"Sometimes I think half the families out there are going through the same things we are, but they're ashamed to say anything," said Frank Zamora, Dominic's father. "But it's already out in the open. You can't hide it no more."
Days after the attorneys deposited $700,000 from the Roman Catholic church into Dominic Zamora's bank account, he left a slurred, angry message on his parents' answering machine: "You treat me like a little stepchild."
The drunken message was the opening volley in a fierce and protracted battle over control of the settlement, a battle that plays on unresolved feelings of guilt and betrayal so intense that after one fight, Dominic's father blacked out at the sight of his son walking up the driveway.
Today, Dominic and his parents rarely speak, and they believe Dominic has entrusted what remains of the $700,000 to a bail bondsman named Dave whom he met on the streets of Whittier. He owns eight cars, including a '53 Imperial and a '66 Thunderbird, and two flatbed tow trucks even though he lost his license for drunken driving.
His parents are afraid to ask how much money, if any, is left from the settlement he received last fall.
"I used to manage his money but I was so upset that I went to the bank and I withdrew his money in a cashier's check and I said, 'Here, I don't want your money. You can stick it where the sun don't shine,'" said his father.
"Ever since that money came in, it's just an argument each time we see him."
Childhood photos of Dominic show an angelic-looking little boy in a short-sleeved dress shirt, with neatly combed hair and a shy, inquisitive smile and piercing, deep green eyes.
Three decades later, his arms snake with angry ink, chilling tattoos of skeletons with twisted faces that represent the devil and a pair of clowns grimacing with exaggerated grins and sneers. His cell phone rings to the song "I Need A Freak" by Too Short: "I need a freak, to hold me tight/I need a freak, every day and every night."
Earlier this year, he tattooed a devil's horn dripping red blood on each temple.
He blames his mother for sending him to be an altar boy at the parish church where his childhood priest got him drunk on communion wine and molested him for years. He blames his father for not standing up to her.
Their punishment, he says, is to watch him spend the church's money any way he wants on cars, on a string of girlfriends and on the alcohol that has left him with just 10 percent of his liver.
"I blame it on them a lot. Everyone tells me forgive and forget, but how am I going to forgive something like that?" he said. "I think I'm torturing them, which I shouldn't have to be doing to my parents. They're after the money, they wanted the money."
"I ain't got no feelings for them. Like I said, I hatched from an egg. And the money made it worse."
Dominic's anger torments his father, a Vietnam veteran who is plagued with guilt because he did not protect his son.
For penance, he takes the abuse, the rejection and the anger â and when Dominic calls, he still comes running. When he arrives, Dominic leaves.
"He takes off and I'm there but I just, I just...," he said, trailing off. "It doesn't feel like I'm accomplishing anything and the guilt is still there. I can't make it up, I can't reverse the time."
But where Dominic's father is crippled by grief, his mother is more matter-of-fact.
Before the settlement, she would stand at his bedroom door in the middle of the night and listen with her heart in her throat as her youngest son thrashed and cried out in his sleep: "Don't hurt me, don't hurt me! I'll do what you say, I'll do what you want."
But over time, she has become hardened by his blistering anger over the money.
"If you could give me back my son's childhood, I'd gladly take that back because he had a future," she said. "Now he has no future, you see him, he has no future."
A year after David Guerrero received his money, he spent $40,000 to open a used modern furniture store in Palm Springs. His parents, Minerva and Robert, worked there at his request.
But when David called suddenly to tell them he was about to pay $20,000 for another store packed with secondhand goods, his parents rushed to intervene. They arrived too late; David had closed the deal.
As they walked into the new store, David dropped the keys in their hands. As he strode out, he told his parents: "This is your store now. Deal with it."
The Guerreros cleaned out the abandoned shop.
"We felt we had to do something or we would get yelled at," said Minerva Guerrero, as she recalled the incident. "It was like David was the parent and we were the children. We're the parents and David's the child, but it was the other way around. That's what I felt like."
The $4 million changed David, his parents say, and in changing him, it altered their family dynamic forever.
It left them with a son who would buy what he wanted, said what he wanted, did what he wanted to do. If he wanted to get high, he would leave for San Diego with no notice and come home days later to his mother's care.
In the nearly five years since his settlement, he has bought a stable of thoroughbred horses, luxury saddles and a vast collection of modern art, photography and art deco furniture. He gave $100,000 to a woman who told him the prince of Dubai was going to build a lavish development in the desert and spent $250,000 to build a yogurt shop that never opened.
He spent it all. His health insurance has run out and earlier this month, he applied for welfare.
His parents, who live with him in a new two-story home bought with David's money, are powerless to intervene. They have talked about moving out, but they are afraid if they do, their son will overdose or commit suicide.
"He says, 'Well, I bought you a home, what other kid would do that for their parents? You live comfortable, you have everything you want,'" Minerva Guerrero said. "Well, I could live in a tent and be happy rather than live in a home like this with all these problems, these problems with David. This is not normal."
When David is sober and upbeat, he opens the door to self-reflection and acceptance and his natural charisma shines through. He talks in a rapid, stream-of-consciousness monologue about forgiveness, going to catechism classes and how much he loves his parents.
His dark hair is slicked back and an open-chested cotton shirt and baggy jeans make him look half his age.
"I don't want to be a victim anymore, I want to be somebody that can redeem myself," he said. "I think I blamed my dad for not being there for me, I think I tried to blame whoever I could. I tried to blame whoever I possibly could because I had no other way of understanding what was going on with me."
But David's mood swings erratically, and when he reflects on the money he's lost, and the broken relationships, he grows resentful.
His parents "think the money has caused conflict, but you just have to live with it. I just have to live with the damage that's been done," David said. "That's all I can do."
He blames his family, he blames his attorney, he blames his financial adviser, he blames his bookkeepers and he blames his friends.
"Everybody knew this was going to happen," David said, his voice thin and high with anger. "How come I wasn't warned enough?"
Still, there have been signs of hope.
It's been almost a month since Dominic checked into alcohol rehab, the judge's alternative to a three-year prison term for back-to-back drunken driving convictions. The program is a Christian one, and each morning Dominic rises at dawn and gathers for prayer with his fellow alcoholics.
"I never thought I'd be back in a church again, and here I am," he said, his voice suddenly gentle. "I like it here." He recently saw a psychologist.
David, too, is staying clean for the first time in months. The crystal meth finally overwhelmed him and nearly killed him. Now, he drives to Palm Springs every day for group therapy and, so far, he's come home every night.
These halting, fragile steps are a poor bet against a lifetime of failures and false starts, but for the Zamoras and the Guerreros, they are everything. The money is gone and, for the first time, they dare to hope that their sons are still there.
"I say to myself, he's my prodigal son," said Frank Zamora. "He went away, but he's going to come home."