Former Conroe Priest Returns to Court after Latest Indictment
By Nicole Hensley
July 18, 2019
|Manuel La Rosa-Lopez, former priest at Conroe's Sacred Heart Catholic Church, runs a rosary through his hands Thursday, July 18, 2019 after leaving the 435th state District Court of Judge Patty Maginnis in Conroe.Photo: Cody Bahn, Staff photographer|
A priest accused of molesting three children at a Montgomery County parish returned to court Thursday for the first time since his indictment on a new charge of indecency with a child.
Manuel La Rosa-Lopez entered a plea of not guilty on the latest charge as his day in court was pushed back to September, with a lawyer for the former Sacred Heart Catholic Church priest saying the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office was still sifting through a trove of subpoenaed records from the Archdiocese of Galveston Houston.
Assistant District Attorney Wesley LeRouax said the priest waived a formal arraignment by signing off on resetting the appearance.
The 61-year-old priest, flanked by his defense team, said nothing as he left the courtroom through a side door and out a back alley into the sweltering heat in downtown Conroe. He ran a rosary through his hands as he crossed a street.
The expanding case against La Rosa-Lopez has already garnered a handful of postponed court appearances since his arrest last September on four counts of indecency with a child involving two accusers. He was indicted June 27 on a fifth charge stemming from a third accuser who alleged in a civil lawsuit that the priest exposed his genitals to him at the Conroe church.
Wendell Odom, La Rosa-Lopez’s lawyer, has attributed the repeated delays to the ongoing review of records and Thursday was no different.
“It’s a lot of material,” Odom said, as the priest silently waited to enter the courtroom.
The latest count of records was not known. District Attorney Brett Ligon said in May that his office had collected 16,000 records from four search warrants conducted at churches in Conroe and Richmond, a clergy rehabilitation facility in Splendora and the archdiocese headquarters in downtown Houston.
“Normally, you do the investigation — and then you charge someone,” Odom said, adding that he is eager to get a look at the state’s evidence against his client. “This time, it’s backwards. It’s a little bit odd, but there’s very little we can do about it.”
Odom expressed worry at the growing spotlight on child sex abuse involving priests and how it would impact his trial. He cited an El Paso case where former cleric Miguel Luna was sentenced Tuesday to 18 years in prison for molesting a 12-year-old girl more than two decades ago. Luna was among a list of credibly accused priests released in January by the Diocese of El Paso.
“It seems like every day there’s more publicity, not necessarily with (La Rosa-Lopez) but some other priests,” Odom continued. “It seems to just pile up.”
He said his legal team is researching whether a change of venue will be sought should the case progress to a trial.
Sitting in a bench opposite from La Rosa-Lopez in the courtroom was Eduardo Lopez de Casas, of Houston’s chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priest. He whispered to reporters behind him as court was in session that he would like the priest to plead guilty to avoid having the accusers testify in a trial.
In a statement Wednesday night, SNAP officials called on Cardinal Daniel DiNardo to instruct La Rosa-Lopez to do so.
“We believe that church officials can and should spare his victims the pain of that trial and should encourage the priest to plead guilty instead,” the statement read.
La Rosa-Lopez was booked into the Montgomery County Jail for the latest indictment on July 3 and released the same day after posting bond.