The Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix has given Herminia and Richard Nicolaus and their four sons the greatest gift of all: An unwavering faith in God.
But the church also is accused of giving the Chandler family perhaps the greatest horror of all: Sexual abuse by a priest.
Nearly two decades ago, Herminia, 40, and a relative were sexually abused by the Rev. Joseph Briceno, according to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, which this week released indictments of six current or former priests, including Briceno. Herminia was 19 or 20 at the time and her relative was a minor. Briceno has been charged with six counts of sexual conduct with a minor, one count of attempted sexual conduct with a minor and one count of sexual abuse.
Today, the Nicolaus family still attends St. Mary’s Church in Chandler, where Briceno befriended Herminia, her siblings and her parents.
"Sometimes I ask myself, am I like an abused wife who goes back to the same thing?" Herminia said. "This is how I choose to worship. This is who I am."
For Herminia and Richard Nicolaus, the Catholic Church has been both their source of pain and their strength for recovery. "We simply can’t walk away from it, no matter how big the pain is," Richard said.
Instead, Herminia and her family have spent nearly two decades trying to understand. In an interview with the Tribune, Herminia agreed to talk about her ordeal publicly for the first time.
"We’re regular people, just trying to get through life," said Herminia, through tears. "It is an abuse of an entire family."
When Herminia was a teenager in the early 1980s, her family turned to St. Mary’s Church and Briceno for help. Herminia’s mother and father had separated, a trauma that was revealed in the family’s confessions to Briceno, Herminia said. The priest became a frequent visitor in the home, establishing a bond so close that he was looked to as a father figure, she said.
"I can look back and see how he groomed us. He definitely chose our family because we were vulnerable," she said. "He had a hold on us."
That bond with the family included a friendship between Briceno and a relative, who did not agree to an interview with the Tribune and is not identified in this story.
During visits to the church rectory and on other occasions, Herminia said the relative was sexually abused by the priest. The possible abuse was not disclosed out of shame, Herminia said.
There were signs that something was wrong — the relative would slam doors or take off on a bicycle — but nothing that couldn’t be explained by problems at home or typical teenage angst, she said.
Herminia said she was abused by Briceno, too. One Saturday morning, during a visit to the family’s home, Herminia awoke to someone touching her breast, according to the county attorney’s investigation. Briceno was standing in her room.
"You look back and say, ‘Gosh, why didn’t I know this was going on?’ " Herminia said. "You don’t want to believe it when someone is a leader of a church."
Eventually, Herminia said the relative told her what Briceno did, and in 1992, the family reported it to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix. That year, Bishop Thomas O’Brien suspended Briceno from public ministry.
REVELATIONS AND DISAPPOINTMENT
Reporting the abuses to the diocese, however, did not provide the catharsis the family was hoping for. Herminia, who by 1992 was married to Richard, said the couple left their meeting with Michael Diskin, now assistant chancellor for the diocese, feeling hurt about the way they were treated. Diskin seemed antagonistic and angry that the couple brought the issue up, they said.
"I felt we were guilty trying to prove our innocence to them," Herminia said.
Diskin said he remembers meeting with the family, but does not remember saying or doing anything that would make them feel mistreated.
"That would be a false representation," he said. Emotions may have clouded the family’s recollection, he added.
"The proof is in the actions that were taken," Diskin said. "Father Briceno has never been allowed back into the diocese."
But today, Herminia and Richard say they can’t forget how the diocese treated them. Even members of their church at first discouraged the couple from coming forward.
"There still are many Catholics willing to believe the bishop before they believe victims," Herminia said.
County Attorney Richard Romley said Briceno is believed to be living in Mexico. Romley said authorities are moving to locate and transfer him to Maricopa County to face the charges.
After Briceno’s suspension, he was appointed associate pastor at Cristo Rey Parish in San Luis, Sonora, Mexico. Kim Sue Lia Perkes, spokeswoman for the Phoenix diocese, said O’Brien notified church leaders at that parish about the allegations in Arizona.
Although nearly 20 years have passed, the pain of abuse still lingers for Herminia and her family.
She and her husband keep close watch over their four sons, the oldest of whom are in high school.
"One of the most difficult things for me was when my son said ‘Can I become an altar server?’ and I said ‘No, because mom doesn’t feel comfortable,’ " said Herminia before breaking out in tears. "I don’t trust my judgment anymore."
What she does trust is her faith in God and her hope that by revealing abuse in the church and the pain it causes victims, the diocese will improve and the community can heal.
"I’m not afraid anymore. Spiritually, we’ve grown from this," she said. "I can’t believe a God of love would want this to continue in secrecy, and I know he wouldn’t want this to happen to families and children."