Fugitive Priest Faces Sanctions
By Virginia Hennessey
February 18, 2012
A judge issued strict sanctions Friday against a fugitive priest in a lawsuit by his molestation victim.
Judge Lydia Villarreal ruled the Rev. Antonio Cortes will not be allowed to present evidence in his own defense, should he ever return to face the civil allegations.
Cortes, who pleaded no contest in March to more than a dozen charges involving the molestation of a 16-year-old parishioner, is believed to be in Mexico. He fled after being released from jail in December. A warrant was issued for his arrest for failing to report to his probation officer and register as a sex offender.
He could also face contempt-of-court charges.
Chris Lavorato, the victim's attorney, said he was preparing a contempt motion against Cortes when he fled to Mexico. Lavorato, unable to serve that motion, went into court Friday to ask Villarreal to grant a default judgment against the priest or issue an "evidentiary sanction" prohibiting him from presenting defense evidence in the future.
The judge granted the latter request, which would mean Cortes would only be allowed to cross-examine the victim's witnesses in the event of a civil trial.
Cortes was arrested in April 2009 after the boy reported he was sexually assaulted during a "spiritual massage" in the rectory of St. Mary of the Nativity Church in Salinas, where Cortes was pastor.
He pleaded no contest in March to felony charges of sodomy involving a minor and possession of child porn, as well as 12 misdemeanor counts including child molestation, child endangerment, furnishing alcohol to a minor and committing lewd acts in the presence of a minor.
He was sentenced in May to three years probation and one year in county jail. The victim, "John Doe," filed suit in July.
That is when the civil drama began to unfold. Lavorato said he received a court order allowing him to depose the priest. He took a Spanish-language interpreter and videographer into Monterey County Jail for the sworn testimony.
"Despite the fact he had pled to 12 counts," Lavorato said, Cortes "took the Fifth" and refused to answer any of the questions. The priest said an attorney told him to do so to protect his appeal in the criminal case.
Lavorato, formerly of Salinas and now working for the Cotchett Pitre & McCarthy law firm in Burlingame, then submitted written questions to Cortes.
This time Cortes responded with answers under penalty of perjury, saying in part that he "thought he was helping" John Doe, Lavorato said. By doing so, Villarreal then ruled, Cortes waived his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. She ordered him to submit to deposition.
Again, the priest took the Fifth. Lavorato returned to his office and began drafting the motion for contempt. Within a day he learned Cortes had been released from jail.
Initially, he said, he understood Cortes was taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and deported to Mexico. Later, he learned ICE released the priest pending his appeal and Cortes left on his own.
Cortes' criminal attorney, Miguel Hernandez, and Assistant District Attorney Stephanie Hulsey said they have not heard from the priest since.
He is believed to be in his hometown of Zacoalco de Torres, Jalisco, Mexico. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Monterey, which is named in the lawsuit, notified the bishop there that Cortes is a convicted pedophile and has been stripped of his faculties to practice as a priest.
Also on Friday, Villarreal granted a motion by Lavorato compelling the diocese to turn over Cortes' personnel file. The diocese did not object to the motion. Spokesman Tom Riordan said the diocese could not legally release the file without Cortes' permission or a court order.
The diocese recommended in October the Vatican defrock Cortes. Riordan said Friday Rome has not taken action.
Virginia Hennessey can be reached at 753-6751 or firstname.lastname@example.org