Father Anthony Garduno had been an associate priest at St. Edward’s in Corona, California for a year. As the largest parish in the Diocese of San Bernardino (11 Masses on Sundays), a large proportion of the parish was Hispanic, and Fr. Garduno was the only Spanish speaking priest on staff. In January of 1994, the diocese informed the parishioners that Fr. Garduno had been placed on administrative leave. The parishioners were told that Garduno had left voluntarily after signing a statement in which he admitted to having sexual contact with a male parishioner. The man had told diocesan officials that Garduno had asked him to strip during a marriage counseling session, and that sexual contact then occurred.
By the end of March about 50 members of St. Edward’s were holding candlelight vigils outside of the church in support of Fr. Garduno and seeking his reinstatement. Their spokesman, Guadalupe Ruiz, claimed that Garduno had been pressured into signing the paperwork admitting the impropriety. Ruiz told reporters that thousands of petitions had been signed by supporters of Garduno, but that diocesan officials were not paying attention to “the voice of the people.”
In December of 1994 Fr. Garduno had filed a lawsuit against St. Edward’s, the Diocese of San Bernardino, and several church and diocesan officials, alleging negligence, slander, fraud, and intentional infliction of emotional distress on the part of church officials. He claimed that he had not asked his accuser to take his clothes off, and that there had been no sexual contact. Garduno claimed that he had only expressed his opposition to the marriage in question, and that the accuser’s brother-in-law threatened to make the misconduct allegations public if the man was not allowed to marry. Garduno claimed he had made several appeals to the diocese (as well as to officials in Rome) asking for a reconsideration of his case and reinstatement.
The diocese had continued to pay Garduno his full salary, as well as car and health insurance, and pension benefits. Nonetheless, Garduno complained in his lawsuit that he was not receiving his $1,000 a month housing and food allowance, which the diocese had withheld since Garduno had refused to take up residency in a kind of “half-way house” for retired and “wounded” priests (including those accused of sex abuse). Garduno had visited the facility, but said he wouldn’t stay there because its residents were “depressed” and there was an overall “resort atmosphere.”
Garduno told reporters that he would love to return to St. Edward’s, “but the people don’t have a voice and they have learned that. If the people had a voice, I’d be back.” While he waited for diocesan officials to issue a final decision on his status, Garduno served himself Mass every morning.
In August, the Diocese of San Bernardino officially suspended Garduno for becoming the priest of the newly formed “Old Catholic” parish of Our Lady of Tepeyac. He had dropped his lawsuit and had been serving Masses in the homes of sympathizers. When the number of people attending the Masses began to swell to as many as 100 people, they arranged to start holding Masses with an Old Catholic parish in nearby Riverside (St. Bride’s Celtic Catholic). In April Garduno joined the “All Nations Diocese” and the parish of Our Lady of Tepeyac was formed soon thereafter in Home Gardens (an unincorporated area between Corona and Riverside).
Garduno claimed that the new parish better reflected the “will of the people.” As an example, Garduno revealed that the new parish incorporated Native American rituals into the Sunday services. As an example of this syncretism, he recounted how the parish used sage (which Native American traditions say purifies the soul) instead of incense.
The All Nations diocese allowed priests to marry and permitted women to become priests. The group had also established a more congregational (lay) decision making structure. Garduno and enthusiastic supporters told reporters that the great thing about this kind of Catholicism is that it is “non-judgmental.”
In the years that followed the parish of Our Lady of Tepeyac thrived while apparently remaining institutionally independent and never officially joining another jurisdiction or diocese, claiming that it was simply “Old Catholic.” At times it was speculated that the parish was part of the Free Catholic Church, or the Orthodox Catholic Church of America, but it is probable that the parish was always under the sole leadership of Garduno.
Officially within the Diocese of San Bernardino, Garduno’s status had remained in question. In 2003 the Diocese finally held a “heresy” trial for Garduno, and officially removed his clerical status. Garduno did not attend the proceedings, and told reporters that the paperwork he received did not mention the word heresy or schism, but simply found him guilty of not being in union with the Pope.
I visited the parish occasionally from 1999 onward and found the people to be friendly, and the services to be generally similar to Roman Catholic services in the area. There were usually about 50 people or so for the English language services, but easily over a hundred for the Spanish Masses. The only hint of Native American elements I could detect in the services was a brief mention of a native or Aztec spirit during the opening prayer.
Little did I know that, in September of 2009, “Bishop” Garduno would make headline news in Southern California. Five young men had been engaged in a ten hour robbery spree in which they targeted Dennys and IHOP restaurants, and then inexplicably decided to cap off their evening by robbing Garduno (who lived on the grounds of Our Lady of Tepeyac). During the course of the robbery Garduno received a gunshot wound that resulted in minor injuries. The young assailants were arrested and Garduno was interviewed on the local television news, stating that he was angry with what the robbers had done, but not with them as people.
The reason the robbers had strangely targeted a church during their crime spree soon became apparent. In December a young man went to the police and alleged that Garduno had sexually assaulted him when he was seventeen. The young man also claimed that he knew of other young men who had been sexually assaulted. During their investigation of Garduno’s home they uncovered evidence which they said verified the young man’s claims, but also drugs and weapons. On December 29th, Garduno was arrested. He was charged with selling methamphetamine, of being in possession of illegal drugs, and of possessing a stolen gun.
Although the police were certain that sex crimes had been committed, and issued pleas for victims to come forward, no sexual assault charges were ultimately filed against Garduno. The seriousness which the police gave to the sex abuse claims were no doubt due to the discovery of the “date rape” drug GHB in Garduno’s home.
After initially denying the charges, Garduno soon pled guilty. In March of 2010, he was sentenced to two years in state prison.
Our Lady of Tepeyac still holds Sunday morning services, but it remains to be seen what will happen when Garduno is released from prison. Will he return to lead his flock, once again as the persecuted priest? After all, the parishioners had already overlooked suspicious behavior on his part.
This story was compiled from the following sources:
“Corona Cleric on Leave After Sexual Incident,” by Jenny Cardenas, Riverside Press-Enterprise, January 6, 1994.
“Parishioners Pray for Priest’s Return,” Ibid., April 2, 1994.
“Corona Priest Wants Suit to Help Set Precedent,” by Dave Downey, Ibid., January 14, 1995.
“Priest on Leave Suspended for New Affiliation,” by Joe Gutierrez, Ibid., August 18, 1995.
“Diocese to Try Priest for Heresy,” by David Olsen, Ibid., December 13, 2005.
“Defrocked Priest Changes Plea to Guilty on Felony Charges,” KTLA News,
http://www.ktla.com/news/landing/ktla-bishop-arrested,0,1699563.story, January 4, 2010.
“Priest Sentenced to Prison for gun, drug charges,” by Will Bigham, March 1, 2010http://www.insidesocal.com/sb/iecourts/2010/03/priest-sentenced-to-prison-for.html