Rita Milla speaks about her ordeal and current life after being raped by seven priests as a 16-year-old in Carson.
Rita Milla speaks about her ordeal and current life after being raped by seven priests as a 16-year-old in Carson. (Brad Graverson/Staff photographer)

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Rita Milla felt a pang in her stomach last month as she began reading a thick church file related to her landmark sexual abuse case against the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

The Carson resident received the file on Jan. 29, almost 35 years to the day years of horrific sexual abuse by seven priests began when she was just 16. A judge had ordered the file and those of other abuse victims in Southern California released as part of a legal settlement against the archdiocese.

"The 28th of January 1978 was when I was first raped," said Milla, now 51, as she sat Thursday in the Wilshire Boulevard office of civil rights attorney Gloria Allred.

It was the first in-depth interview Milla has granted since the documents were made public.

"Every year on that day it kind of freaks me out," she said. "I started feeling like when I was 18 when this stuff was going on - the same feelings, the guilt and the hating myself." I became very depressed and for three or four days I just wanted to hide out. I just wanted to throw up.

"Things I had totally forgotten about, they were in there. So it brought back everything. A very horrible time.


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One of the priests, who was sent to the Philippines to stay with his brother's family, impregnated Milla when she was 19. He was sent to the Philippines to stay with his brother's family, supposedly to study nursing. as cover - not even her parents yet knew the truth - She gave birth to his child in a life-threatening pregnancy and delivery.

At the time, the scope of the sexual abuse by parishioners suffered at the hands of supposedly celibate priests was largely unknown.

Her sensational accusations against the priests and eventually the hierarchy of the Catholic Church were made against the backdrop of an incredulous and sometimes hostile public.

But the allegations by a devout, yet vulnerable teenage Catholic girl made national headlines. The charges that she was callously coerced into submitting sexually to respected authority figures were the first in the nation to receive widespread attention, she said officials with the Center for Constitutional Rights told her.

The group has called for an investigation into cover ups around the world by high-ranking Vatican officials for what it believes are crimes against humanity.

"There were people who couldn't and wouldn't believe it," Allred said. "The secret was hurting so many people and destroying so many people. That makes it so significant that Rita had the courage to speak out and to break the silence and tell the secret.

"That helped to encourage and empower other victims, other survivors, to know that if Rita had the courage, and if she could take some legal action, that maybe they could too," Allred added. "So Rita inspired a tidal wave of other cases and the breaking open of this secret that the church was so determined to keep."

But it was more than that.

An initial lawsuit Allred filed on Milla's behalf was tossed after a judge ruled the statute of limitations had expired.

She did win a settlement related to a $6 million defamation action against a Catholic bishop who publicly claimed Milla was promiscuous in an apparent effort to discredit her. That provided a trust fund for her daughter, Jacqueline.

The priest who started the cycle of rapes in seedy motels and revered church rectories - Father Santiago Tamayo - publicly apologized at a 1991 news conference.

But Milla herself got no financial compensation for her ordeal from the church.

In 2002 Allred lobbied for and won a one-year window under state law that suspended the statute of limitations. That allowed abuse victims to file suit for long ago crimes.

It's a tactic other states have employed in their search for justice and others are still pursuing. 

Milla eventually received $500,000 in 2007 as part of a record $660 million settlement against the church.

It was a legal battle that took almost a quarter century, Allred said, taking up 23 years of her 38-year law career.

Church officials had initially told Milla they would help her and her child.

"Instead of helping, they covered it up," Allred said. "And then they helped the priests, not you, because it was all about the image of the church, it was all about keeping the secret."

But the newly released records have corroborated the extent of the cover-up perpetuated by the archdiocese, Allred said.

There are letters of concern from church officials in Rome, asking what the publicity regarding Milla's accusations was all about. They suggested the background of priests should be checked more carefully in the future.

There and written exchanges between the accused priests and the archdiocese, which falsely claimed not to know their whereabouts.

In the letters senior Los Angeles church officials urged Tamayo to stay out of the country lest he expose himself - and the archdiocese - to a lawsuit.

They urged him to continue in the trusted role of priest in a new parish, potentially giving him access to new unsuspecting victims.

At another point they urged him to get a job outside the priesthood - and offered a recommendation.

And they continued to secretly pay him until he left the priesthood and married. Tamayo died in 1996.

The stalling, Allred said, was designed to ensure the statute of limitations ran out.

"They were trying to obstruct justice," Allred said. "There was a cover-up and (the files) substantiated it.

"They should have dealt with this from the beginning in an honest fashion. But they just deepened the wounds they had inflicted upon so many outsiders. There's just no excuse. And it went on for decades, we're not talking about a couple of years."

It was Allred, not the church, that eventually found Jackie's father and forced him via court order to take a paternity test.

Father Valentine Tugade never contacted Rita Milla or asked to see his daughter. He never apologized.

Jackie, who has three sons from a first marriage, recently remarried and now lives in San Diego. She declined to be interviewed for this story, in large part said her mother, because she remains angry at the church.

So does Rita Milla.

"I'm forcing myself to face it," she said of the old memories brought back by the release of the files.

"I'm forcing myself to see all theugliness in it," she added. "Throughout the years I learned how to bury it and ...always knew there was something I wasn't coming to terms with, so I hope it will somehow help me."

Milla, who is married with a son and still works as a medical assistant, attended a recent news conference by SNAP - Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Milla credits such groups with helping keep the issue in the forefront so other victims can find a degree of justice.

She said she talked to fellow abuse victims at the SNAP event about what they found in the recently released files. The conversations provided a degree of closure.

"It wasn't personal anymore, it was done to others (too)," Milla said. "It was their modus operandi."

Today, like other members of her immediate family, Milla no longer believes in a God.

A God whose earthly representatives would take advantage of those who believed in him - and them - is not something Milla can put her shattered faith in.

Instead, she sought more practical considerations for herself and other victims from a church that exploited believers and attempted to evade accountability for so long.

"They totally underestimated Rita and her will, her courage in getting to the truth and inspiring others," Allred said. "Rita has made history. She is dedicated to seeking justice not only for herself and her child, but for so many others.

"She just wanted the truth to come out. And most of it has."


nick.green@dailybreeze.com
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