|Bishop Admits He Was Wrong Giving Job to Former Seminarian Facing Child Porn Charges
By Mark Morey
April 2, 2008
YAKIMA — The bishop of the Catholic diocese in Yakima admitted Tuesday that he failed to tell priests and parishioners he had hired a former seminary student who was being investigated for viewing child pornography.
Bishop Carlos Sevilla acknowledged that he made a "series of errors in judgment, a whole bunch of them," when he gave a part-time job to a now 37-year-old man who was later promoted to direct the St.
Peter Retreat Center in Cowiche.
Among the missed checkpoints were informing Cowiche pastors about the man's background and telling the diocesan lay committee responsible for monitoring child safety issues.
"I certainly want to be accountable for that," Sevilla said at an afternoon news conference to disclose his response to last month's arrest of Juan Jose Gonzalez Rios by Tieton police.
Gonzalez, a native of the Cow-iche area, faces a 2005 warrant that alleges he committed a crime related to the viewing of child pornography in Marion County, Ore. The case arose while he studying at the Mount Angel Seminary near Mount Angel, Ore.
Diocesean officials said Gonzalez spent about four years at the seminary but was dismissed in February 2003 after the seminary made a report to Mount Angel police about the pornography allegations.
He returned to the Yakima diocese, where Sevilla hired him for a part-time job at the Cowiche retreat center.
That summer, Gonzalez assumed the full-time post as director. In the meantime, seminary officials had informed the Yakima diocese that Mount Angel police were continuing to investigate. Sevilla said he never received another update.
For reasons that are not clear, the warrant was not issued until 2005. Neither the diocese nor law enforcement officials have released details about the allegations.
After Sevilla's news conference — an unusual sign of openness from a bishop who has preferred to maintain a low public profile on such matters — a veteran critic of the diocese's response to sex abuse claims and the suspect's Zillah attorney offered differing viewpoints on the case.
Sevilla never should have hired Gonzalez, but his actions since then reflect a pattern of secrecy stretching back more than a decade, said Robert Fontana, a local member of the Voice of the Faithful who was invited by Sevilla to the news conference at diocesan headquarters on Tieton Drive. The Boston-based VOTF is made up of lay church members who have lobbied for reforms in the church's handling of abuse cases.
"His behavior has been consistent with keeping secrets until he gets caught," Fontana said. "I love the church, I love this diocese, but what the bishop said has not been his pattern. His pattern is to keep it a secret."
After talking to Gonzalez, Sevilla said, he believed the Oregon allegations were an isolated event.
Zillah attorney J.J. Sandlin, on the other hand, portrayed Sevilla as sacrificing Gonzalez once the criminal charges became public.
Sandlin said nothing about the facts had changed from when Sevilla learned of the allegations in 2003 to when Gonzalez was arrested.
Gonzalez is innocent of the charges, Sandlin said. He said Gonzalez never intended to look at "kiddie porn," but he wouldn't elaborate beyond saying that Gonzalez was under duress at the Ore-gon seminary.
"Whatever he did was his attempt to get away from those people in the seminary," Sandlin said.
Sevilla said he wasn't initially concerned because Gonzalez was hired to deal with adults, but his job grew to include duties with children. He taught youth classes in Cowiche and at Holy Redeemer Parish in Yakima for a couple of years, Sevilla said, adding that he didn't learn until recently that Gonzalez was teaching youth classes.
No other allegations have emerged about Gonzalez, but the diocese has hired a private investigator to make sure.
Sevilla acknowledged that he should have followed up on the 2003 letter from the Oregon seminary.
"I didn't even think about it again until he was imprisoned," Sevilla said Tuesday.
Gonzalez — who spent four years at the seminary as a major step toward his goal of becoming a priest — is now a "broken man," Sandlin said.
It wasn't clear what attempts had been made to locate Gonzalez since he was charged in 2005.
The warrant surfaced when a Tieton police officer stopped Gonzalez for speeding March 19 on Summitview Road in Tieton. The retreat center sits just outside of town.
Tieton police Chief Jeff Ketchum said he was not aware of any local charges being investigated.
The Oregon charges against Gonzalez are apparently still sealed. Even though the warrant lists a valid case number, the file can't be accessed in the state courts' record system.
Police in Mount Angel referred questions to the Marion County district attorney's office, where a representative said no public information was available.
No one was available to comment on the case at the Mount Angel Seminary.
Under the church's structure, Sevilla is unlikely to face any internal repercussions, Fontana said.
The bishop effectively answers to the pope, and the church has generally held that bishops are responsible for correcting their own lapses when handling cases of misconduct involving children.
No bishop has faced disciplinary removal in cases across the country since the abuse scandal spread from the Boston diocese in 2002, Fontana said.
Sevilla said he had yet to consider whether he would address his handling of the matter in a sermon.
He declined to speculate on how church members would react to the developments given the church's emphasis on aggressively responding to sexual allegations against priests and other staff.
Fontana predicted a mixed reaction, with some parishioners upset at the bishop and others upset at those who would question him.
Gonzalez, who is not expected to return to his diocesan position, is scheduled for an extradition hearing April 22. He is being held in the Yakima County jail with his bail set at $80,000.
Mark Morey can be reached at 577-7671 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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