Articles on Former Fargo Priest Spur Prosecutors to Meet
Accused of Sexual Abusing Boys in 1998, Saysaya Later Fled to Philippines
Grand Forks Herald
December 9, 2004
News stories about a former Fargo priest who authorities believe fled sex abuse accusations in 1998 have sparked new interest by local prosecutors after years of little action.
The Rev. Fernando Sayasaya is accused of having sexual contact with two boys beginning in 1995. He was charged in Cass County in December 2002 with gross sexual imposition, about four years after he returned to his native Philippines.
Authorities have not spoken to Sayasaya in two years, but they said this week they are still working to bring him back to Fargo.
In fact, U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley and Cass County State's Attorney Birch Burdick had a meeting Tuesday in Fargo to discuss the case, after The Dallas Morning News published a story Sunday about Sayasaya. The Herald printed the Morning News story Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Morning News conducted a yearlong investigation of the international movement of priests accused of sex crimes, including Sayasaya.
The priest told police and a friend that he would come back to Fargo to face a jury if he could afford a plane ticket, but Wrigley says he's skeptical.
Burdick said it is the first time his office has attempted to extradite someone from outside the United States, and it's a slow process.
"It's not something that's done here on a daily basis," Burdick said.
Sayasaya has said he would come back voluntarily if he had enough money to travel, West Fargo Police Detective Gregory Warren said.
"He said he would be willing to come back," Warren said. "But he said he did not have the funds to come back."
State and federal authorities say they are still trying to bring Sayasaya back to face a Cass County jury through legal channels, and by working with the Philippine government.
"The extradition process is under way and has been," said Wrigley. He said he does not believe it's a matter of money for Sayasaya.
"I support an alternative conclusion that he's a fugitive from justice," Wrigley said.
Attempts by The Associated Press to reach Sayasaya by phone Tuesday were not successful. No one answered his cell phone.
Retired Fargo physician Eusebio Mendoza describes Sayasaya as "an old friend."
"He wants to cleanse himself," Mendoza said. "I suppose he feels guilty and wants to face it and get it over with and face the consequences."
Warren said earlier that Sayasaya had admitted to the abuse.
Mendoza said it's been about two years since he spoke with Sayasaya, and he also said the priest cannot afford a plane ticket to Fargo.
"I believe he also has some unmet financial obligations in this country," Mendoza said.
The Morning News interviewed Sayasaya in Manila earlier this year and reported that he works as an English instructor at a university in Manila and quoted him as saying, "I'm really very careful with young people."
Attempts to call him there were unsuccessful.
Burdick said the Federal Bureau of Investigation has interviewed Sayasaya in the Philippines. He said local law enforcement officials also have talked to him on the telephone in recent years.
"We have one goal and that is to bring him back here to face a jury," Burdick said.
Neither Wrigley nor Burdick would say how long it might be before Sayasaya would be extradited. Both men said it's not as simple as sending the priest an airline ticket.
Sayasaya was ordained by Bishop James Sullivan in Fargo in June 1995 in the Cathedral of St. Mary's; he served as an associate pastor at St. Mary's in Fargo and the Blessed Sacrament church in West Fargo until late 1998.
Officials of the Catholic Diocese of Fargo said earlier that Sayasaya was relieved of his duties as a priest in August 1998, when the allegations involving juveniles first surfaced. After spending some time at Blue Cloud Abbey near Marvin, S.D., Sayasaya was given permission by Bishop Sullivan to take a vacation to the Philippines about Christmas 1998. He has never returned.
Suffering from ill health, including Alzheimer's, Sullivan retired in March 2002, handing over full duties to Bishop Samuel Aquila. Sullivan still lives in Fargo.
Aquila, with other bishops from the region, is in Rome to visit the pope.
The Fargo Diocese released a statement Monday saying it "cooperates fully with law enforcement officials."
Dr. Mendoza said diocese officials in 1998 asked him to tell Sayasaya to stay out of the United States.
"A priest suggested that I warn him that the authorities are here waiting for him," Mendoza said. He said he could not remember the priest's name. The Morning News reported that it was the Rev. John Cavanaugh, a St. Michael, N.D., native and former Grand Forks priest now serving at St. Mary's in Fargo. Cavanaugh acknowledged to The Morning News that he had talked to Mendoza about Sayasaya.
Detective Warren said the Fargo diocese had been in contact with Sayasaya and told him to return to the United States. The detective said he has been told Sayasaya still works with young people in the Philippines.
"I'm not happy about that at all," Warren said. "And I'd be surprised if the church was happy about it."
Warren said authorities have not given up on getting Sayasaya back to the United Sates to face the sex crime charges.
"I'm still convinced we're going to get him back here," Warren said.
In a report last year, the Fargo Diocese said 17 priests and deacons have been accused of sexual abuse of minors since 1950. The diocese said it paid out $821,830 in compensation to alleged victims of sexual abuse and for counseling and attorney's fees to defend allegations against the clergy.
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