Priest May Face Federal Child Porn Charges
GP: Judge Won't Review Ruling Tossing Evidence in State's Case
By Robert Tharp
The Dallas Morning News
June 16, 2006
A Grand Prairie priest accused of possessing child pornography on a church computer could face federal charges after a state judge refused Thursday to reconsider his earlier ruling that evidence in the case was tainted.
District Judge John Creuzot's ruling kills any chances that the Rev. Matthew Bagert could be prosecuted under state law. The judge ruled last month that a fellow priest and a deacon at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church broke the law when they searched Father Bagert's church-owned computer without his consent.
Under state criminal codes, evidence obtained by breaking the law cannot be admitted in Texas criminal court.
In Thursday's hearing, prosecutors presented new arguments to explain the actions of an associate priest who searched Father Bagert's computer, saying that the associate priest sneaked into the office and searched the computer out of a sense of necessity rather than criminal intent, among other things.
But Judge Creuzot said he would not reconsider his ruling because a 15-day appeal period had expired.
"I don't know why you didn't appeal it," Judge Creuzot said. "I detailed it in a way that it could have been appealed. The request is denied."
After the ruling, prosecutor Eric Mountin said he had already spoken with federal prosecutors about taking over the case.
"On anticipating that this was a possibility, we've already contacted the federal government," Mr. Mountin said, noting that the criminal code that the judge based his ruling on does not extend to federal law.
"This was someone we did not feel should be able to escape," he said. "We believe the evidence is extremely strong."
Federal officials could not be reached for comment late Thursday.
Mr. Bagert's attorney, Kevin Clancy, said federal prosecutors would have a similar problem with the case because he believes the search of the computer was in violation of the U.S. Constitution as well as Texas criminal codes of procedure.
According to court files, the Rev. Jesus Belmontes, an associate priest, said that he first saw a questionable image reflected off Father Bagert's computer in December 2004 but that he did not immediately think it was pornography.
Father Belmontes said that after attending a church workshop on recognizing and reporting sexual abuse in January 2005, he became concerned and decided to sneak into Father Bagert's office to search his computer because he feared making a false claim against his colleague.
The next day, Father Belmontes and deacon David Maida returned and videotaped the images they found. Grand Prairie police later executed a search warrant and arrested Father Bagert based on the images they found.
Father Bagert has been suspended from performing priestly duties, and his status is under review by church authorities in Rome.
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