A Diocese's Darkest Day
By Cynthia Hubert
August 11, 2013
|The Rev. Uriel Ojeda, shown here in 2009 when he headed a Woodland parish, was a rising young star in the Sacramento Diocese, celebrated for his charisma and viewed as a role model by his largely Latino parishioners. But his image – and life – were shattered by sexual abuse charges. |
Just after sunrise on a crisp November morning, the Rev. Timothy Nondorf arrived at the Sacramento Catholic Diocese to tend to administrative duties for Bishop Jaime Soto.
Nondorf, an easygoing young priest with silver hair, celebrated Masses and heard confessions at Holy Spirit Church in Land Park and lived in its rectory. His primary job, though, was with the diocese, where he served as vice chancellor.
As he parked outside the brick building behind an Arco station on Broadway, Nondorf anticipated an ordinary day of answering telephone calls and huddling with the bishop about pastoral issues.
Instead, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011, almost instantly turned to crisis for him and the sprawling diocese.
By the end of the day one of the diocese's most popular priests, accused of molesting a young girl, would be the subject of a criminal investigation. The Catholic Church, long criticized for protecting abusers, would be publicly tested about its declaration of "zero tolerance" for such crimes. Soto would steel himself for intense public scrutiny.
Minutes after settling into his chair that Tuesday, Nondorf listened to a voice mail message someone had left on the diocese's main line overnight.
I have a complaint against one of your priests, the man said, and left his name and number.
Nondorf, 41, who had served as a priest in parishes in Sacramento, Elk Grove and Grass Valley, at first was unflustered. The caller, he speculated, probably disliked the priest's homily on Sunday, or objected to his style of footwear.
He returned the call a few minutes later. This is Father Tim Nondorf, he said. How can I help?
Father Uriel Ojeda molested my daughter, the man answered.
For a moment Nondorf froze, stunned. "Oh my God," he thought. He flashed back to the charismatic Ojeda's ordination, with a group of young priests known as the "Magnificent Seven," in 2007.
Quickly, Nondorf pulled himself together. He began taking notes.
This was a new era in the Catholic Church. In the past, diocesan officials admit, skepticism had been the first reaction to accusations against priests. Today, because of revelations about decades of clergy abuse, secret settlements and accusations that the church has protected molester priests, the response is vastly different.
"We now have the procedures in place to act quickly," Soto said recently.
Nondorf and other members of Soto's pastoral team each have a copy of policies dictating how they must respond to abuse allegations. Accusations involving someone under age 18 must be immediately reported to police and Child Protective Services, according to the protocol. The bishop must be notified as soon as possible, and if he determines an offense "may have been committed," the priest must immediately be placed on administrative leave.
The diocese had faced sexual misconduct allegations against priests only a few times since Soto was installed as bishop in 2007. They had never dealt with a case like Ojeda's, which would become a criminal investigation of a very popular and public priest.
As he spoke for the first time with the father of the girl whom Ojeda allegedly abused, Nondorf grew increasingly concerned.
He asked the man detailed questions, scribbling dates and circumstances of the allegations. The man, court records would later show, was accusing Ojeda of touching an adolescent girl's breasts, exposing himself to her and placing his hands under her pajamas as she lay in bed. The man said the acts began when his daughter was 13 and Ojeda, who was the family's parish priest at Holy Rosary in Woodland, was a guest in the family's home. Ojeda had since been transferred to Our Lady of Mercy Church in Redding.
The voice of the girl's father was laced with anger, but Nondorf noted that he spoke coherently and rationally.
I want Father Uriel removed from the ministry, the man said. I don't want this happening to anyone else.
After about 20 minutes, Nondorf hung up. He laid his head in his hands for a moment, processing the sordid information, then walked down the center's carpeted hallway to the office of another member of the bishop's management team, Chancellor Kathy Conner.
"Kathy, we have a big problem," he said, closing the door behind him.
Plans and prayers
As Nondorf began talking, Conner's heart started to race. According to Soto's protocol, her job as the diocese's chief operating officer was to follow up with the family, then speak to the bishop about whether the allegations against Ojeda seemed credible.
After Nondorf left, Conner pulled her laminated copy of the "Protocol for Abuse" out of her desk and quickly reviewed it, then said a quick prayer.
"God, be with me. Holy Spirit, be with me," she whispered before picking up the phone.
Conner's background included working as a district manager for the Old Spaghetti Factory and directing the nonprofit Sacramento Life Center. She prided herself on her ability to connect and communicate with people. But this was an unprecedented challenge.
She knew Ojeda as a rising star of the diocese, an energetic, hardworking priest in his early 30s who was a role model to his largely Latino parishioners. He was a bit of a media darling whose story had been featured on the front pages of The Bee.
Ojeda had trained in the midst of the Catholic Church's turmoils around the issue of sexual abuse. Now he was among the accused.
On the phone, the Woodland man told Conner that Father Uriel had been like a son to him and his wife.
He was part of our family, he said to her. How could this be?
Conner inquired about the daughter's health, offered the family spiritual support from the diocese, and talked to the man about setting up professional counseling for the girl. She wished the family well and said she would be in touch.
She then requested a meeting with Soto.
The bishop was not in the building, but Soto rarely is without his iPad and smartphone. Conner sent him an email detailing what she and Nondorf had learned.
Soto soon arrived and assembled his key advisers around his conference table, settling in under a photo of John Wayne with the caption: "Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway."
By noon, the diocese's attorney, Jim Sweeney, had made a report to CPS and the Sacramento police, who asked the diocese to wait a day before talking to Ojeda. Vicar General Monsignor James Murphy, with the help of canon law expert Mark Richards, drafted a letter informing Ojeda that he was under investigation and would be removed from his ministry. The diocese's publicist and troubleshooter, Kevin Eckery, flew in from a meeting in San Diego to help handle the media.
Among other things, they had to decide who would drive to Redding the following day to outline the allegations to Ojeda and bring him to Sacramento. As second in command to Soto, Murphy normally would have been charged with that duty. But Murphy, who had been Ojeda's supervisor when the younger priest was in the seminary, had an important meeting in Siskiyou County on Wednesday.
So the task fell to Nondorf.
The plan was for Nondorf to travel with Joseph Sheehan, a former FBI agent who was working as a private investigator on contract with the law firm that represents the diocese.
Nondorf cringed at the assignment. He was coming down with a cold. He was losing his voice. He did not want to be the one to give Ojeda the terrible news. But he decided he could not shirk his duty.
"Yes, bishop," he told Soto. "I will go."
That night, Nondorf went home to the rectory at Holy Spirit, ate dinner and made small talk with his roommate, forbidden from mentioning anything about the case. Later, he walked to the empty church, knelt in a pew and prayed silently for about an hour.
The priest's admission
In the morning, Nondorf rode shotgun in Sheehan's green sedan during a three-hour drive along Interstate 5 to Redding.
He had a feeling, he told Sheehan, that "this is not going to end well."
Ojeda knew Nondorf would be visiting, but had not been told why.
On the drive, Nondorf and the investigator discussed possible scenarios: What if Ojeda became defiant? What if he refused to come back to Sacramento? Perhaps worst of all, what if he admitted to doing these things?
Nondorf rehearsed what he planned to say to Ojeda.
As they walked from the parking lot to the rectory of the Redding church, the two men spotted Ojeda waiting for them at the back gate. They watched his brilliant smile fade as they approached.
"We have to talk," Nondorf said. Ojeda led them into the living room of the rectory.
"I'm sorry to say this," Nondorf said after they sat down, "but we have credible allegations against you, and you're going to have to come down to Sacramento to face this."
Without mentioning the girl's name, Sheehan outlined the accusations.
Ojeda was silent, his face blank.
Yes, he said, finally. Those things did happen. (Later, the priest's attorney would argue that his words represented a confession, or "penitent privilege," and were protected from disclosure in court. A judge rejected that argument.)
After their discussion at the rectory, the three men walked together to Ojeda's bedroom, where he packed a canvas bag with enough clothing for a few days. The diocese had a place for him to stay during the investigation of the allegations, Nondorf told him.
Ojeda gave Nondorf the keys to his bright yellow pickup truck, which they drove back to Sacramento, with Sheehan trailing in his car.
Nondorf's throat was aching. His voice was fading. He felt mostly anger toward Ojeda, who hardly said a word during the drive.
About 100 miles from Sacramento, near the town of Orland, Sheehan phoned Nondorf and told him he needed to stop for fuel. At the gas station, he told the others that he had received a call from Sweeney. The police wanted to talk to Ojeda. If he chose to do so, the priest could turn himself over to authorities that day.
Ojeda told Nondorf to take him to the police station.
As night began to fall, Nondorf pulled into the parking lot of the Sacramento Police Department on Freeport Boulevard. After Sheehan went inside, he took Ojeda's hand and looked into his eyes.
"You may have to pay for what you have done," he said. "But you are still a priest and a brother."
Ojeda's eyes began to get teary.
"You need to consider getting an attorney," Nondorf told him. "You're in serious trouble."
Nondorf then asked for Ojeda's blessing, knowing it might be the last the younger man would ever administer as a priest.
Ojeda put his hand over Nondorf's head. May almighty God bless you in the name of the father, the son and the Holy Spirit, he said softly.
Sheehan tapped on the car window. It was time to go inside.
At around 9 that night, Ojeda traded his black clothing and white collar for an orange jumpsuit. He was fingerprinted, booked and escorted into a cell at the Sacramento County jail.
Ojeda's name appeared on the jail's booking sheet, along with other those of inmates who came in overnight, at 12:01 a.m. Thursday. But police had asked the bishop to delay making the case public until they could interview the girl and her family. The priest's incarceration went unnoticed until Friday, when the diocese announced it in a terse press release.
The first news reports burst onto the Internet within minutes. "Catholic Priest Arrested for Lewd Acts With a Child," one headline said. Ojeda's solemn face, lips pursed, appeared in a lineup of inmates on mugshot.com.
From his cell eight floors above the street, Ojeda already had become a client of one of the area's most prominent criminal defense attorneys, Jesse Ortiz.
Soto, meanwhile, was getting ready to face the public.
"We can't hide from this," Soto told his staff. "We are coming out of a history of suspicion that we have not been candid about these things. It is important for me to deliver the news."
It was during the early 2000s, as Ojeda was studying for the priesthood, that the national sexual abuse scandal erupted across America. The Sacramento diocese, like many across the country, faced questions and criticism about its handling of such cases.
At the time, Bishop William Wiegand revealed that 14 of its priests had been accused of sexual misconduct with minors over the previous 30 years. Of the 14, two had died. Two were retired and not permitted to function as priests. Another seven had abandoned the priesthood or fled the jurisdiction. Three were still active in the diocese, because the allegations against them had not been sustained.
At 12:03 p.m. on the Friday after Ojeda's arrest, Soto stood before more than a dozen reporters in a conference room at the pastoral center.
As two TV stations broadcast his remarks live, the bishop spoke of the pain and courage of the alleged victim and her family. He called the allegations against Ojeda devastating.
The violation of trust, he said, "takes our breath away."
Even as he spoke, a crowd began to assemble outside the downtown jail.
Carrying signs with Ojeda's photo and chanting his name, members of the priest's devoted flock were angrily protesting his arrest. Some attacked the diocese as being jealous of Ojeda's successes, and raised the possibility the Woodland girl had fabricated the allegations.
That afternoon, Soto piloted his white Nissan Altima to a meeting in Redding that was unconnected to the Ojeda case. But his advisers kept his cellphone pinging with updates and information about the matter.
The accused priest's supporters had organized a defense fund on his behalf and set up a "Padre Uriel Ojeda" Facebook page. They were peppering the diocese with calls and emails. They were praying and singing on the sidewalk beneath Ojeda's jail cell.
In the days that followed, Soto and his staff kept a low profile. They were wary, the bishop said, of showing favoritism to either side in the case. They assigned priests to visit Ojeda in jail, but neither the bishop nor members of his administrative team were among them.
After a few weeks behind bars, Ojeda was released on bail to a secret location, and since then has appeared in public only during court hearings.
On Friday, Aug. 2, following a plea deal, a Sacramento Superior Court judge sentenced Ojeda to eight years in state prison.
Ojeda apologized to the family and the diocese and called himself a "weak and sinful" man. A prosecutor read statements from the girl and her family, calling the priest a "selfish coward."
Deputies led Ojeda, his hands chained at his waist, back behind bars.
But for the diocese, the case "is still not over," Soto said recently. "I feel a deep sadness for what he did to others, and what he did to himself."
The diocese, he said, is asking the Vatican to strip Ojeda of his priesthood.
"We are beginning the formal process to remove him," Soto said. "It is a very sad thing. He had such a bright future. But there are consequences to what he has done."