Summary of events in Modesto at St. Joseph’s Parish (2001-2005 )
On September 11, 2001, Fr. Joseph Illo offered the 8 a.m. Mass at St. Joseph’s parish in Modesto, CA. Terrorists had attacked New York and Washington two hours prior, and the parish community was in chaos. Just after Mass, Kathleen Machado asked Fr. Illo to speak with her 11-year-old daughter, Amber, while the mother went to work. Amber said that she did not want to serve the Masses of Fr. Illo’s associate priest, Fr. Francis Arakal, because he made her “uncomfortable.” Because the church plaza, where they were talking, was filled with people who were alarmed and upset by the terrorist attacks, Fr. Illo took Amber to the parish office to try to understand her concern. He called Fr. Arakal to speak with her as well, which was a mistake, because the child and the priests became agitated. Fr. Illo’s secretary called Amber’s mother and asked that she retrieve her daughter. At no time during this episode did the girl accuse Fr. Arakal of criminal behavior.
On May 14, 2002, Kathleen Machado accused Fr. Arakal of sexual misconduct. The Diocese of Stockton put him on leave for two months while the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department did a full investigation. On July 10, 2002, the Sheriff’s Department dropped the case for lack of evidence. Fr. Arakal was returned to active ministry in the parish.
In 2003 Machado’s attorneys initiated a civil case which went to a jury trial in March of 2005. Based on the findings of the jury and the judge in the case, which are public documents, the following is clear.
In March 2005, a San Joaquin County Superior Court jury found that Fr. Joseph Illo neither intended nor caused the emotional distress of a child. He was found to have acted with “reckless disregard of the probability” that an 11-year-old girl might suffer distress when he questioned her about her public accusation of his then associate pastor, Fr. Francis Arakal.
The civil case lasted three years and ended in a three-week jury trial that unanimously dismissed all charges but those relating to the disregard explained in the paragraph above. The court ordered $20,000 in damages to be paid to the girl’s family; however, the judge ordered the plaintiffs to pay the priests’ more than $23,000 in legal fees. According to a reliable legal source familiar with the case, the defendants could have asked for punitive damages as well, but the diocese decided in favor of mercy toward the plaintiffs.
During both the criminal investigation and the lawsuit, Fr. Illo continued as pastor of St. Joseph’s in Modesto through the rest of his six-year term. He then completed another six-year term, building one of the diocese’s most dynamic parish communities. He left the parish in 2012 for a position at Thomas Aquinas College in Southern California, and he became administrator at Star of the Sea Parish in 2014.
We are aware that Star of the Sea School parents were given a copy of the plaintiff’s allegations. For the record, we provide here the defendant’s response.