Former Yakima bishop could testify in sex-abuse case today
By Donald W. Meyers
March 12, 2014
YAKIMA, Wash. — Bishop Emeritus Carlos Sevilla testified Wednesday under questioning in federal court that he once described what happened between a deacon and a Zillah teen in 1999 as “sexual assault.”
The questioning came from Bryan Smith, who is representing the teen, known as John Doe, in a $3 million civil lawsuit against the Diocese of Yakima for allegedly failing to properly check Deacon Aaron Ramirez’s background before accepting him as a candidate for the priesthood. The lawsuit also alleges church officials failed to supervise him while he was in the diocese.
Smith asked Sevilla in court about a phone call with Ramirez in Wenatchee after the 1999 incident in a trailer at Zillah’s Resurrection Catholic Church.
In the call, Sevilla — who had been made aware of the situation while vacationing in California — asked Ramirez what happened.
“He described it as mutual masturbation,” Sevilla said of Ramirez.
Smith then confronted Sevilla: “You described it as sexual assault.”
Sevilla repeated Ramirez’s description of the incident.
But Smith produced a deposition in which Sevilla described the incident as a sexual assault, and Sevilla admitted to using the term.
Evidence in the case also shows that diocese officials described the incident involving Ramirez and Doe as “sexual abuse.”
Church officials said they were surprised by the deacon’s revelation because he had led “an exemplary life” in his nine months as a seminarian in Yakima.
“We were all very much surprised when he was accused and admitted the sexual abuse of a young man in the parish where he lived,” Monsignor John Ecker wrote in a 2001 letter to the Vatican seeking permission to remove Ramirez from the church.
Sevilla defended his reasoning for not informing Mexican bishops that Ramirez, who would be applying to become a priest there, had admitted to molesting the teen.
“My strategy was that Aaron would present himself to the bishop in Mexico and say why he was there (in Mexico),” Sevilla said.
The strategy worked, Sevilla argued, because Ramirez eventually left the Catholic priesthood.
Sevilla, who was bishop of the diocese at the time, testified on the third day of the nonjury trial. Sevilla, who had to leave Wednesday afternoon to return to a conference out of state, is expected back in court Tuesday.
Why not warn Mexico officials?
During Wednesday’s hearing, Smith reviewed email correspondence between Sevilla and Ramirez, as well as notes Sevilla took of phone calls to and conversations with Ramirez in Mexico after the incident. The exchanges revealed that Ramirez was applying to be a deacon there.
Smith questioned why Sevilla would not warn his Mexican colleagues that a man accused of sexual abuse would be applying for ordination in their dioceses.
Sevilla responded that any bishop would reject Ramirez as a candidate on moral grounds.
“Do you have any personal knowledge that happened?” Smith asked Sevilla.
“That he was turned down by five bishops is my personal knowledge,” Sevilla replied.
Smith presented a letter Ramirez sent to Pope John Paul II in which Ramirez requested a release from his religious vows to become a lay member of the church. In the Jan. 5, 2001, letter, Ramirez described the incident as a “turbulent and inappropriate relationship with a minor.”
Doe testified earlier that Ramirez invited him to the church for guitar lessons, plied him with alcohol, then proceeded to rape him repeatedly.
“If (Ramirez) was not being straight with the pope, why did you think he would be straight with the bishops in Mexico?” Smith asked.
“He was turned down by five bishops, so he was straight with them,” Sevilla said.
Sevilla also said that Ramirez’s explanation was enough to get him removed from the priesthood by the Vatican. He added that Ramirez’s letter was accompanied by the 2001 cover letter signed by Ecker.
Deacon’s letter to pope
At one point after the incident, when Ramirez left Zillah for Wenatchee, Sevilla said he told him to wait for another priest to pick him up the next day and take him to Zillah for questioning by the police. When the priest arrived, Ramirez had left for Mexico.
In the letter to the pope, Ramirez said he fled to Mexico to deal with feelings of guilt and fear.
Smith also challenged Sevilla on why he did not inform Zillah police that Ramirez was in Mexico, pointing out that Ramirez had revealed to Sevilla where he was staying in the country more than once.
Sevilla said it was his understanding that the police were not pursuing charges and he felt no need to pass on the information.
Smith said that on more than one occasion, Sevilla told Ramirez not to return to the United States, where he risked arrest, even if he avoided Washington state.
In one of the exchanges, Sevilla presented an opinion from the diocese lawyer who said Ramirez would risk arrest if he came back.
Sevilla said he was not warning Ramirez, but rather answering his questions about what would happen should he return.
The diocese maintains there was nothing in Ramirez’s background or conduct suggesting he was a threat to children or youth, although the diocese has said that Ramirez’s application to be a priest in Yakima is missing. Sevilla said he must have seen the paperwork or he would never have admitted Ramirez to the diocese as a priesthood candidate.
The diocese also argues that Doe’s accounts of the incident are inconsistent.
In a cross examination of Doe on Wednesday, diocese attorney Ted Buck pointed out that Doe said in an earlier deposition he could not remember parts of the incident, such as whether his foster brother was present when Ramirez is said to have served alcohol to him, but testified to those events with clarity Tuesday.
Buck also questioned how Doe could testify about being dragged around the trailer, his head repeatedly banging on the floor, but a doctor who examined him the next day could find no physical signs of an assault.
The trial resumes today and is expected to continue into next week.