Justin Lucio

By Joe Simnacher
WFAA [Dallas TX]
November 2, 2006

A suspended Catholic priest whose years of assistance to poor immigrants was tainted by allegations of financial and sexual misconduct has died.

The Rev. Justin Lucio, 63, died late Tuesday at Methodist Dallas Medical Center hours after he suffered a heart attack at his Dallas home.

"His body just failed," said Michael Warrior, an immigration lawyer and longtime friend. He said Father Lucio never regained consciousness.

Father Lucio had been in good spirits recently and returned about two weeks ago from a vacation in Acapulco, Mexico.

"This was a surprise," Mr. Warrior said, despite the priest's health problems. Father Lucio had diabetes and relied on kidney dialysis.

Services will be at 11 a.m. today at Casita de Abogados, Mr. Warrior's immigration-assistance center at 223 W. 10th St. in north Oak Cliff.

Casita de Abogados, founded in 1989 as Casita María, was at the heart of Father Lucio's good works and the allegations about his character. As pastor of St. James Catholic Church, Father Lucio developed a reputation for helping the poor, especially immigrants. In 1987, he was nominated for a Linz Award for his work.

But in April 1989, he voluntarily resigned as pastor at St. James after he was accused of financial and sexual misconduct. His accusers said he had pressured young immigrant men for sex.

Father Lucio denied the charges, and many believed the charges couldn't be true. The priest went on a three-month fast. His supporters marched on his behalf at the diocese headquarters. Some called him a folk hero. Even the Catholic Diocese of Dallas called the charges unsubstantiated.

At the assistance center, Father Lucio helped thousands of immigrants gain citizenship and legal residency.

Maria Dominguez, president of Familias Unidas, a grass-roots organization of immigrant families founded by Father Lucio, described the priest as a man who gave much of himself to the community, especially immigrants.

"He was a great man as far as I'm concerned," she said. "He always had an open door to help anyone who needed help. Even though he was sick, he was always trying to help."

In 2003, 14 years after Father Lucio founded Casita María, a Dallas Morning News report on widespread financial irregularities led to an investigation by the Texas attorney general. The priest was forced off the center's board but was allowed to continue as its executive director after promising financial reform.

A year later, the attorney general seized the charity after a new board member quit and alleged that the fiscal abuses continued. Father Lucio was barred from setting foot on the Oak Cliff center's property.

But in September 2004 – six months after Father Lucio was locked out of the charity he founded – Mr. Warrior purchased the center from the court-appointed receiver. And the state let Father Lucio return. The center later changed its name to Casita de Abogados.

"The unavoidable fact is that Casita María was Father Lucio," John Vinson, an assistant attorney general for charitable trusts, said at the time. "That was a good thing and a bad thing."

In Father Lucio's absence, the center lost all its government-accredited immigration counselors, acquired substantial debt and saw its clientele shrink dramatically.

By noon Wednesday, about 100 people had stopped by the center to express condolences, Mr. Warrior said. He said he had not spoken with anyone from the Dallas Diocese about the service and didn't know whether a priest would conduct a funeral Mass for Father Lucio.

"I don't think he would want that," Mr. Warrior said.

Dallas Bishop Charles Grahmann suspended all of Father Lucio's clerical powers in 2003 after the priest refused to stop celebrating Mass at Casita María. Diocese officials couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday.

Information on survivors was not immediately available.

Staff writers Frank Trejo and Brooks Egerton contributed to this report.



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