|Marcos Breton: Accusations against Priest Hit Close to Home
By Marcos Breton
December 4, 2011
It wasn't just any priest who turned himself in to Sacramento police last week on multiple counts of allegedly molesting a young girl.
The Rev. Uriel Ojeda performed the last rites on my father, Reynaldo Eduardo Breton, on the night before he died.
My brother Rod and I were trembling in the moment, but Ojeda steadied us with his grace and compassion.
I'm so grateful to him and a dear friend who brought him to us because I never would have forgiven myself had Dad died before a priest had seen him.
Those memories scraped my heart as I raced to the Diocese of Sacramento offices Thursday, where Bishop Jaime Soto faced the media with the horrible news of Ojeda's arrest.
Another priest accused of sex with a minor? My priest accused of this?
In my state of mind at that moment, Soto's remarks sounded like the church was throwing Ojeda under the bus.
I thought of all the headlines involving priests accused of sexual molestation and of church elders enabling predators wearing collars, Pope Benedict included.
Wasn't this further proof that vows of celibacy drove some priests to sexual dysfunction? And what of Ojeda? My paper has printed thousands of words on his joyous entry into the priesthood. In an increasingly Latino church, we've called the Mexican-reared Ojeda the "face" of the church's future. He was one of a relative handful of priests under the age of 35.
He came of age amid the sex abuse scandal and symbolized a hope that priests like him could change that image.
He's been called "Father what a waste," as in "Father what a waste he is a priest because he is so handsome." Tall and boyish, only 32, Ojeda seemed a magnet for young women of boundless faith.
I've quoted some of them who called Ojeda an angel sent down from heaven.
In light of the charges against him – seven counts of lewd behavior with a girl under 14 – stories about Ojeda in The Bee are now mind-blowing to read.
"His superiors thought he spent too much time with women," one story said. "Once, he packed his bags after a teacher reprimanded him for his behavior."
The Bee recounted another moment when an elderly parishioner warned Ojeda.
" 'Father,' " said the old man, leaning toward the priest. 'Be careful.' He gestures to some women nearby. 'They're waiting for you.' "
Two of Ojeda's mentors left the priesthood to marry. Many priests leave the church within the first five years because they can't maintain their vows of celibacy. Ojeda would have reached the five-year mark in June.
"Better men than me have fallen; how am I going to make it?" he said in one Bee story.
He also said: "Just as God saw me make the promises on that day (of his ordination), so did the devil. He is watching, waiting for me to slip."
Now, those words could not be more powerful. One of the accusations against Ojeda is dated June 29, 2007 – the day he and six other priests were ordained into the Diocese of Sacramento.
It was front-page news and covered widely because some regions don't ordain priests for years and here Sacramento had seven – "the Magnificent Seven" – as they were dubbed by joyous church elders.
Add to all this the sight Friday of a shackled Ojeda in an orange jumpsuit as he shuffled into the cage where suspects are arraigned in a courtroom in Sacramento's Main Jail.
There is so much to absorb, but let's not be blinded.
The disposition of Ojeda's criminal case will not and should not be judged by hearsay or emotions. Ojeda isn't Joe Paterno, who was fired from his job for admittedly failing to do more in the face of sex abuse accusations at Penn State.
It's not Ojeda's professional status at stake. His life and freedom are on the line.
His soul-baring quotes in The Bee add poignancy to his situation, but they are not evidence.
If we render judgment now – if we convict based on the behavior of other priests or exonerate out of reverence for a priestly collar – we do so out of our own biases.
We don't know the facts of the case.
In truth, Soto and the Diocese of Sacramento didn't throw Ojeda under the bus after learning of the alleged molestations. They promptly notified authorities, drove to Redding to retrieve Ojeda and spoke of caring deeply for the family that made the accusation against Ojeda.
They delivered to police one of the dearest among them because it was the right thing to do, no matter how it looked or how much it hurt.
Whether priests should be celibate or not seems irrelevant in a case where the victim was under 14. We know there are plenty of sexually active predators who prey on kids.
We also know people can be falsely accused.
Is the priest a criminal or a martyr? It's up to our criminal justice system to decide.
For those of us who believe, it's up to the highest judge of all.
For the rest of us sinners on the sidelines, all we can do is see what we want to see and try to make sense of it all.
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