|'Damaging Admissions' by Priest
Police Listened As Alleged Molestation Victim Made Call
By Virginia Hennessey
April 22, 2009
A Salinas priest charged with sodomy and child molestation made "damaging admissions" about his alleged crimes on telephone calls taped by Salinas police, a prosecutor said Tuesday.
Prosecutor Rolando Mazariegos said the 16-year-old victim in the case placed two "pretext" calls to the Rev. Antonio Cortes. As police listened in, he said, Cortes admitted some of the behavior the boy had reported.
While the admissions were not "full confessions," Mazariegos said, the boy's story was further corroborated in a search of Cortes' living quarters. Among the items seized, he said, were boxer shorts with the colors and designs described by the alleged victim.
The prosecutor said Cortes, pastor of St. Mary of the Nativity Catholic Church in Salinas, has made no statements to police. The 41-year-old priest remained jailed in lieu of $750,000 bail Tuesday.
He is scheduled to be arraigned and enter a plea this afternoon to a felony charge of sodomy with a minor and 12 misdemeanor counts of child molestation, providing alcohol to a minor, child cruelty and performing an immoral act before a child.
Salinas attorney J. Hernandez, who indicated he may be retained to defend Cortes, is set to argue for a reduction in bail at the same hearing.
Judge Marla Anderson escalated Cortes' bail prior to his arrest at the request of Salinas police, who said the priest posed a danger to the community and was a flight risk. Bail for a felony charge of sodomy with a minor is typically $75,000.
Photos on cell phone
Mazariegos said no additional victims had come forward by Tuesday afternoon, but police are still investigating the identities of adolescent boys whose photographs, posing shirtless, were found on Cortes' cell phone and computer.
He said early forensic investigation of the priest's computer also revealed he had frequented gay pornography Web sites. At the time of his arrest, the prosecutor said, Cortes was carrying condoms in his wallet.
Mazariegos alleged that Cortes began "grooming" the boy for molestation when he came to him as a 14-year-old for counseling regarding sexual feelings he was having toward his girlfriend. At the time, Cortes was pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Greenfield.
The priest told the boy he could better advise him if he gave him "spiritual massages," which began with back rubs over the teen's clothing, the prosecutor said. Over the two-year period, the massages advanced to the boy's legs. After each massage, he said, Cortes gave the boy brandy.
Cortes, meanwhile, had been transferred to St. Mary's in East Salinas, where the boy continued to visit him. On April 14, the teen returned from a visit to Mexico with tequila that Cortes had asked him to buy, Mazariegos said.
Cortes allegedly took the boy to his bedroom and began a massage. This time, Mazariegos said, he removed both his and the victim's pants and engaged in sodomy.
He again gave the boy brandy after the encounter. Mazariegos said police found the brandy and the tequila the boy described in Cortes' home.
The prosecutor said the victim reported the alleged assault the next day, and police arrested Cortes the following day.
Mazariegos said he filed charges in connection to five "spiritual massages" investigators could pin to dates in February, March and this month. He said it is possible he will file an amended complaint alleging additional molestations of the victim, and that the investigation is ongoing into other possible victims.
"We feel we have that evidence (in the current charges) ready to go right now," Mazariegos said. "We filed because we believe the evidence will be proved beyond a reasonable doubt."
Vigil for priest
The charges have rocked the tight-knit community at St. Mary's, where more than 100 of Cortes' supporters gathered for an impromptu vigil Sunday. Dozens more packed the courtroom for his initial court appearance Monday, then carried candles as they prayed and sang in a procession outside the church that night.
In a statement delivered Sunday by interim pastor Jose Albert Vazquez, Monterey Diocese Bishop Richard Garcia asked the parishioners to cooperate with the investigation and "trust in the justice system and in God."
Though Garcia visited Cortes in jail over the weekend, the diocese is contributing nothing toward his bail or criminal defense.
Virginia Hennessey can be reached at 753-6751 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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