Diocese: No Evidence of Other Abuse by Sonoma Priest
Parishioners stunned by dismissal; church says Ochoa wasn't at school

By Clark Mason
Press Democrat
May 24, 2006

A popular Sonoma priest's dismissal following a report of sexual misconduct with a boy was met with shock Tuesday by members of his parish, while Catholic Church officials said they do not have evidence of other molestations.

Anxious parents called the St. Francis Solano Parish and its parochial school, seeking assurance that their children did not have contact with the Rev. Xavier Ochoa, 69, who was removed from his position as assistant pastor.

Church officials said Ochoa, who had served at the church for the past six years, had no involvement with the adjacent church school, which includes kindergarten through eighth grade.

"He did not work in the school. He had no connection in the school. He was assigned primarily to minister to the Hispanic population," said Santa Rosa Diocese spokeswoman Dierdre Frontczak. "He'd say Mass, hear confessions and provide whatever pastoral services the Hispanic population might need."

She said Ochoa's personnel files were reviewed for any improprieties in 2003, along with that of all other priests going back decades, when the nationwide priest sex scandals were at their height.

She said Ochoa's file was scrutinized again after his disclosure of the molestation to Bishop Daniel Walsh last month.

"There was nothing prior in his file," she said. "There's no indication of any past complaints or suspicious incidents."

She acknowledged cultural and language differences make it difficult for the diocese to know fully the extent of Ochoa's dealings with Latino parishioners.

Neither the diocese nor the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department would provide further details of the allegations against Ochoa, including the age of the alleged victim.

Sheriff's officials refused Tuesday to discuss the case. Walsh declined requests for comment.

The Sheriff's Department said Monday its domestic violence and sexual assault unit had launched an investigation into Ochoa after the diocese reported the allegation to them.

Church officials told parishioners over the weekend that Ochoa was removed from his ministry after he voluntarily informed them about a recent incident of sexual misconduct with a minor.

Ochoa's removal and the allegations of sexual impropriety felt like "being hit in the stomach," said St. Francis Solano Pastor Michael Kelly, who has worked with Ochoa for the past five years.

"People take time to react to these things," Kelly said Tuesday when asked how churchgoers greeted the news announced from the pulpit over the weekend.

"The reaction, from the people who know him, is devastation to disappointment," he said, adding he feels compassion for Ochoa, the alleged victim and his family.

Kelly declined to discuss the allegations against Ochoa, saying he is awaiting the results of the sheriff's investigation.

Ochoa was described as a dedicated, hard-working priest who ministered to the 1,500-family congregation with a large Latino component.

"I was always impressed. He had a big following of Spanish-speaking people," said Audrey Sutherland, 38, a longtime parishioner who also attended the parochial school. She described Ochoa as charismatic.

"He cared. He was deeply involved," she said. "He seemed really kind. It was like a warmth."

It was unclear what prompted Ochoa to reveal the alleged sexual misconduct to Walsh in the last part of April.

"My understanding is he (Ochoa) mentioned something to another priest. That priest notified the bishop, and it resulted in a meeting with the bishop," diocese attorney Dan Galvin said.

Asked about conflicting information that Ochoa on his own accord initiated the meeting with Walsh, Galvin replied, "Maybe the other priest told him to contact the bishop."

Ochoa could not be reached for comment and was reported to be out of the country on vacation. Church officials said he has been barred from performing as a priest.

Formerly from Mexico, Ochoa became an American citizen in 1996.

In saying Walsh was unavailable for comment, Frontczak said the bishop "really has nothing else to say. Once it's referred to civil authorities the lawyer has advised us it's the end of the story."

The allegation involving Ochoa makes him the 17th priest from the Santa Rosa Diocese accused of molesting a minor.

Allegations of child molestation by diocese priests first surfaced a dozen years ago, eight years before the scandal erupted nationwide.

The diocese's finances were drained after a series of multimillion dollar lawsuits and settlements.

On Tuesday, a spokesman for SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, called on Walsh to take more steps to reach out to victims and to post Ochoa's history and alleged crimes in all parish bulletins, diocese newspapers and its Web site. It also called on him to visit every parish and to make strong appeals for victims and witnesses to come forward and report abuse.

Church officials said they have informed parishioners and circulated information if they wish to contact a victims' assistance coordinator - basically a psychologist who helps priest abuse victims. That includes information that was circulated over the weekend to St. Francis Solano churchgoers.

Ochoa was ordained in 1969 as a Jesuit in Mexico and became a diocesan priest when he arrived in Sonoma County in 1988.

He worked as assistant pastor of our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Windsor but also lived at the Casa San Felipe in Cotati, the center of the Hispanic Ministry for the diocese.

He was politically active supporting the labor struggles of farmworkers and opposing Proposition 187, which cuts public benefits to illegal immigrants.

He has been at St. Francis Solano since 2000.

Sutherland said she does not believe the allegations surrounding Ochoa will shake the faith of churchgoers.

"People are human. They make mistakes," she said. "Religion is not for perfect people. It's to help us all with our very human needs. That includes failures."


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