Ex-priest indicted in sexual assault of 15-year-old boy
By Mark Mueller
May 25, 2016
|Max Rojas Ramirez stands outside the rectory of St. Mary's Church in Plainfield. It was his first visit there since he was 15, when he told others he was raped in the rectory by the Rev. Manuel Gallo Espinoza. Gallo Espinoza fled the country after the claim was reported to police.|
Photo by Mark Mueller
|A copy of the visa issued to the Rev. Manuel Gallo Espinoza, who fled the country in 2003 when he was accused -- but not criminally charged -- of sexual assault. After returning to the U.S., he got a job as a teacher in Maryland, records show.|
Photo by Mark Mueller
|A statue of the Virgin Mary behind the rectory at St. Mary's Church in Plainfield. Max Rojas Ramirez claims he was raped in the rectory when he was 15.|
Photo by Mark Mueller
A former Union County priest who admitted to NJ Advance Media last year he sexually assaulted a 15-year-old boy was indicted by a grand jury Wednesday in connection with the attack.
Manuel Gallo Espinoza, 52, fled to his native Ecuador in 2003 after his victim told another priest and a nun that the clergyman raped him in the rectory of a Plainfield church that year.
A criminal investigation at the time quickly went dormant. The investigation was reopened after NJ Advance Media highlighted the victim's case in a lengthy report in July 2015.
Weeks later, Gallo Espinoza admitted in a telephone interview and in email exchanges with a reporter that he carried out the attack, calling it a "mistake" and blaming his victim for enticing him.
"One thing that I am conscious (of) is he was at that time a teenager, and it is a big mistake for me. But I didn't force him to do anything he didn't want," Gallo Espinoza wrote. "He was older (sic) enough to walk away, but I think that I was attracted to him, that is the only explanation that I can think right now."
He said he was also depressed because he was away from his home country and that he was drunk at the time of the assault.
Gallo Espinoza remains at large. He is believed to be living in the area of Guayaquil, Ecuador.
In a statement late Wednesday afternoon, the Union County Prosecutor's Office said a grand jury had indicted Gallo Espinoza on two counts of second-degree sexual assault and two counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual contact. He faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of the second-degree counts.
Gallo Espinoza's accuser, Max Rojas Ramirez, said the priest raped him in a bedroom of the rectory at St. Mary's Church in Plainfield shortly before Easter in 2003. Ramirez, now 28 and living in Elizabeth, was an altar boy and a member of the parish's youth group at the time.
He said Gallo Espinoza attacked him weeks after he told the priest in confession that he was confused about his sexuality. Ramirez has steadfastly denied Gallo Espinoza's contention that he sought anything more than counsel.
On Wednesday evening, an emotional Ramirez said he was grateful authorities pursued the case anew and obtained the indictment after so many years.
"There are so many things that come to my mind right now," Ramirez said. "I'm definitely happy he was indicted. This is something that I wished for: to try to bring me closure and for justice being served. I'm happy it's moving forward."
NJ Advance Media does not typically name victims of sexual assault. It is doing so in this case with Ramirez's approval. He has said he wanted to share his story publicly to spur investigators to reopen the case.
At the time of the attack, Gallo Espinoza was a visiting priest of the Archdiocese of Newark. Ramirez filed suit against the archdiocese early last year. The civil case has yet to be resolved.
Ramirez's attorney, Greg Gianforcaro, said his client has worked hard to expose Gallo Espinoza even as he struggled with the impact the sexual assault had on his life.
"I'm so impressed at Max's tenacity after 13 years of trying to seek justice, and I think this is a major step forward, not just for justice's sake, but for trying to heal as well," Gianforcaro said.
The attorney said the archdiocese should have been more careful in vetting its priests, particularly after the clergy sexual abuse scandal surfaced in 2002.
"One would think the archdiocese would have understood their obligation to protect children like Max from priests like this, especially when this was over a year after the church scandal erupted," Gianforcaro said. "We're not talking about someone who was abused in 1972. It was in the news all the time."
Archbishop John J. Myers suspended Gallo Espinoza from ministry after Ramirez made the allegation. A church review board later found the sex assault claim to be credible. Gallo Espinoza told NJ Advance Media last year he left the priesthood voluntarily after fleeing to Ecuador.
Mark Crawford — the New Jersey director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, an advocacy and support group — applauded Ramirez in the wake of the indictment, saying he "never gave up, and for the right reasons."
"He wants to make sure no one else is hurt by this predator," said Crawford, who worked with Ramirez to kickstart the investigation. "It is disappointing that it took 13 years, but I'm glad law enforcement has finally acted to vigorously pursue justice in this case. We hope to see him brought back to this country and held accountable for his actions."
It remains unclear if investigators will be able to return Gallo Espinoza for trial. While Ecuador and the United States do have an extradition treaty, the South American nation is notorious for its resistance to extradition requests from the American government.
The prosecutor's office asked anyone with information about Gallo Espinoza's whereabouts to contact Sgt. Patricia Gusmano with the special victims unit at (908) 965-3890.
Union County's Crime Stoppers program is offering up to $10,000 for information leading to an arrest. Tips can be given anonymously by calling 908-654-TIPS (8477), via text message by texting "UCTIP" plus a message to 274637 (CRIMES), or online at www.uctip.org.