By Alex Tresniowski
June 03, 2002 12:00 PM

When she was little, Rita Milla believed that angels would protect her world. By 21 she knew better. All alone in a stranger’s house, sent to live thousands of miles away from her family—and pregnant by a Catholic priest who had sex with her—Milla felt she had no place to turn. “After a while I thought that I just wanted to die,” says Milla, now 40. “I thought I could hang myself.” What stayed her hand, what finally saved her: “I imagined my baby dying inside me, and I thought that would not be good.”

Today that baby, Jacqueline Milla, 19, is right by her mother’s side as they wage a battle against the archdiocese of Los Angeles—the nation’s largest—to discover the identity of the priest who is Jacqueline’s father. Rita Milla claims that she was abused by seven Catholic priests over a four-year period, which began when she was a 16-year-old volunteer at St. Philomena’s Church in Carson, Calif. That abuse prompted her to file a 1984 lawsuit against the priests 15 months after Jackie was born. The suit was dismissed largely because the statute of limitations had run out. But in 1991 the priest who instigated the sex, Father Santiago Tamayo, confessed. Then, this April, Milla’s lawyer got hold of several letters suggesting L.A. archdiocese officials not only knew about the sexual misconduct by Tamayo but also shuttled him out of the city to shield him from possible legal repercussions. “This wasn’t a fantasy in this young woman’s head; she really was taken advantage of,” says Los Angeles attorney Gloria Allred, who represented Milla in 1984 and who on May 6 faxed a list of demands to the archdiocese as a possible prelude to a new lawsuit. Says Allred: “It appears the church had a role in the disappearance of the priests, one of whom is the father of her child.”

Those explosive charges are among the latest leveled in this country against the beleaguered Catholic Church, which in recent months has had its dirty secret—serial abuse by predator priests—painfully exposed. Hundreds of victims have surfaced to file dozens of lawsuits in Boston, New York and other cities, leading to the suspension or resignation of more than 150 priests. Rita Milla feels vindicated. “There is only so much you can sweep under the rug before you get this big thing that blows up,” she says. “I waited 18 years for this. Sooner or later I knew other victims would come out.”

The smoking gun in her case, says Milla, is a 1988 letter sent by an archdiocese official to Father Tamayo and copied to Cardinal Roger Mahony, now head of the L.A. archdiocese. The letter instructs the priest to stay away from L.A. because of the threat of lawsuits stemming from his “past actions.” Milla now wants the archdiocese to apologize, to compensate her daughter for the loss of a parent and to help her locate the priest who is Jackie’s father. “I want to see what he looks like,” says Jackie. “I have a fear that he might die without me getting the chance to meet him and say, ‘I am your daughter. Look what you missed out on.'”

Cardinal Mahony declined to comment about the Milla case. Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the L.A. archdiocese, says, “We are very open to assisting Ms. Milla in her attempt to locate her father…. It will take a sharing of information to try to find out where these men are.”

At least two of the seven priests cited by Milla are now dead. Father Tamayo left the church in the 1980s and fathered a child with a woman he later married. In 1991 an ailing Tamayo admitted to abusing Milla and apologized to her in a press conference, saying, “I had her full trust and confidence, yet I got sexually involved with Rita”; in 1999 he died of a heart attack. PEOPLE found another of the seven, Father Angel Cruces, 76, serving at Holy Cross Church in midtown Manhattan. His only comment: “Talk to the [archdiocese’s] lawyers in L.A.” A third priest, Valentin Tugade, 57—the man who Milla believes most likely fathered her daughter—left the church years ago. PEOPLE found him living in a modest condo in Fremont, 36 miles south of San Francisco. His girlfriend, Debra, says Tugade suffers from depression and dementia. But when asked about Milla, Tugade admits, “I do remember her. What happened was we had intercourse with her, a lot of us.” But, he adds, “she wanted it, and so I don’t have to apologize to her. I have repented a long time ago.”

Such priestly misconduct was simply unfathomable to Rita Milla’s parents, who taught her and her two younger sisters to revere the church. Growing up in Los Angeles, they attended mass several times a week. “We used to have the priests visit us in our home for dinner,” says their Mexican-born mother, Rita Milla Dominguez, 74 (their Honduran father, Hector, a dock-crane operator, died of kidney cancer in 1992). Milla’s parents were so strict, “they didn’t allow us to talk to boys,” remembers Rita. “If a guy asked us for a pencil, we would just ignore him.”

While her sisters were popular at school, Rita was withdrawn and had few friends. She found comfort in religion and decided to become a nun. “Church,” she explains, “was the only place I felt happy.” The vulnerable teenager who volunteered at St. Philomena’s soon struck up a friendship with Father Tamayo, a man, she says, whom “everybody liked.” One Saturday in 1978, while Milla was cleaning up a small room off the altar, Tamayo, then 43, approached. “He said, ‘I have a secret. You have to promise not to tell anybody,'” says Milla. “Instead he got really close and kissed me on the mouth. I had never been kissed before.” At the time she rationalized his actions. “I thought it was wrong, but I thought, I am overreacting, he was just being friendly. I will just pretend nothing happened.'”

Soon Tamayo’s advances became unmistakably sexual. “It continued where he would hug me,” Milla says. “Then, when we were behind the altar in the hallway, he put me up against the wall and grabbed my breasts.” Milla told her catechism teacher what had happened, but Tamayo denied the allegations and later lectured Milla. “He said, ‘You could have ruined my life,'” she recalls. “I told him I was really sorry and I would never talk again. I felt guilty.” Not long after that, she says, Tamayo reached through the window of a confessional to fondle her breasts.

Apparently Milla was not the only woman preyed upon by Tamayo and other parish priests. Norman Akiona, an altar boy at St. Philomena’s in the ’70s, says he saw more than one priest molest his mother, Naley, who worked cleaning the office and is now deceased. “They would grab her and touch her,” says Akiona, 36, an events coordinator for Toyota. “She wouldn’t say anything because she was afraid she would lose her job.”

In early 1980, a few months after Rita Milla turned 18, Tamayo and Cruces took her to the house of Tamayo’s brother in Carson. There, says Milla, Tamayo “brought out a condom. It never entered my mind that it could go up to that. He saw the look on my face and said, ‘Don’t worry, it will be okay.'” Both priests had sex with Milla that day.

After graduating from high school, Milla joined the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary convent in L.A. but was sent home after five months when the sisters there decided she was too immature. Milla enrolled at Los Angeles Harbor College and got a part-time job answering phones at Sts. Peter and Paul Church-the parish where Tamayo had become pastor. That she would go to work in the same church as Tamayo “was twisted,” Milla says now. “I don’t know why the heck I worked there.” Over the next two years, she says, she had sex with the seven priests as often as once a week. One night, she claims, four of the priests had sex with her in a Venice Beach hotel. “I didn’t feel I could say no,” she explains. “It was the way I was brought up, to be obedient.”

In the spring of 1982, Milla discovered she was pregnant—probably the result of sex with Tugade without a condom, she believes. At first Tamayo told her to have an abortion, but ultimately he decided Milla should have the baby in secret and persuaded her parents to allow her to travel to the Philippines on the pretense that she could study there more cheaply than in Carson. Tamayo sent Milla to stay with his brother Eduardo, a doctor. Reached at his home in Laoag City, 250 miles north of Manila, Eduardo remembers Milla as a “thrill-seeker” who tried to seduce his brother during her stay—a claim Milla calls “sick.” Of her encounters with the priests, Eduardo says, “It takes two to tango. Why did she keep coming back for more if she didn’t really like it?”

The oppressive heat in the Philippines and the loneliness she felt led Milla to consider suicide. Her desperate letters home alarmed her mother enough to fly to the Philippines, where she finally learned of her daughter’s ordeal. “I hadn’t seen any signs,” says Milla’s mother, Rita, still angered by the memory. “We trusted the priests completely. Little did I know what was really going on.” Milla delivered her daughter in the Philippines, and when she returned to Carson, reported the priests to the archdiocese. Officials there promised to investigate the matter but after a year told Milla there was nothing they could do.

Milla finally filed a paternity suit and a clergy malpractice complaint in February of 1984; Allred claims all seven priests disappeared as soon as the suit was filed. The archdiocese’s delay, though, resulted in the dismissal of the malpractice complaint because it came more than one year after the alleged misconduct had been committed. “Essentially,” says Allred, “they ran out the clock.”

In 1991 Tamayo contacted Allred and admitted Milla’s accusations were true. Still, Milla never told her daughter the truth about her past. “I would tell her her father was a priest,” she says. “But I told her he left us because of his job.” Milla also kept Jackie away from the church. “I didn’t think priests were safe for her to be around,” she says.

It took Milla a long time to sort out her own feelings about men. Her first marriage ended in divorce in 1986 after only a few months; two years later she wed Scott Lewis, 46, an aviation technician and a close friend. They live in Carson with their son Michael, 12, and Jackie. Her marriage, she says, “is very calm and peaceful.” Her daughter Jackie, a tomboy who likes skateboarding and race cars, is six months pregnant by her longtime boyfriend, a college student; the two are thinking about getting married. This fall Jackie plans to study psychology at Los Angeles Harbor College. It was only at a recent media interview that she heard the full story about her mother’s past. “We were already close, but all this has pulled us even closer,” says Jackie. “My mother is my best friend.”

What has been lost, perhaps forever, is the faith that was such a central part of life for the Millas. “I still believe in God but not the church,” says Milla’s mother, who long ago removed all the crucifixes, rosaries and votive candles from her home. “For me, there are no good priests.” As she waits to see how Cardinal Mahony will respond to her requests, Rita Milla hopes the church will act more conscientiously this time around. But she, too, has no illusions. “I do not believe in God anymore,” she says. “I used to wish I could still have faith. But God was too intertwined with the priests. And so, for me, God went with them.”

Alex Tresniowski

Rebecca Paley in New York City, John Hannah, Ron Arias and Frank Swertlow in Los Angeles, Melissa Schorr in San Francisco and Nelly Sindayen in Manila