Predators of the Cloth
Priestly Child Abuse's Familiar Pattern;
Compassion for Victims Found Lacking in Two Local Cases
By Evan Moore
September 28, 1992
Houston has been spared the high profile cases of priestly child abuse that have plagued other Roman Catholic dioceses, but two that did occur followed the pattern of secrecy and face-saving that have created a nationwide scandal for the church.
And in one of the cases, church officials made no effort to counsel the victim.
That case began in 1984 when Father Fernando Noe Guzman, a priest who had already fathered two illegitimate children in Mexico, came to Navasota. Guzman spoke little English but was fluent in Spanish, and he succeeded in bringing Hispanics into the fold.
He also managed to seduce a 13-year-old girl and carried on an affair with her in her deaf and blind grandfather's home while the elderly cripple lay in an adjacent room. That was until 1986, when Navasota social worker Ramona Ybarra came upon the priest and the girl on the kitchen floor.
"When I walked in, I saw this priest on the floor on top of the girl. He (Guzman) had his pants down and his collar loose -- it was hanging to one side," she said.
"When they saw me, the girl ran to a closet and this priest raised up on his knees and started crying and praying and asking me not to tell anyone. He said he'd come to pray with the old man and I told him "He doesn't need anybody like you to pray with him. Get out of here and don't come back. ' " Ybarra said she returned home and told her husband, then called her priest and he arranged a meeting at her home with Monsignor Daniel Scheel, chancellor of the Diocese of Galveston-Houston, and another priest she did not know.
"They said the only thing they could do was to move him (Guzman) to Galena Park. They told us not to go to the police. He (Scheel) said "We're going to handle it. Don't tell them (the police) anything. ' " The priests made no effort to speak to the girl or her parents. Bishop Joseph Fiorenza said he was told of the incident by Scheel, but he was unsure of the victim's age and had never known her name. Scheel said he accepted Guzman's description of her as "a rather precocious child who came on to him" and did not ask her exact age or name.
It was not the last of Guzman's visits to the home. Ybarra caught him there a second time some weeks later and warned him again.
"That time I caught him coming out," she said. "He had made a key to the house and was coming and going as he pleased. I warned him again and I never saw him there after that. " Guzman was transferred a few months after being caught with the girl and Ybarra did not hear from the priests again until 1990.
"Then, they (Scheel and a priest from Galena Park) called me again," she said. "They told me the whole thing could come out, and they wanted to know if I was going to "help' the church. I told them I wasn't going to lie for them, and that was the end of the conversation. " That might have been the end of the case had Guzman not implicated himself. Shortly after his transfer to Galena Park, he started an affair with church secretary Debbie McCorvey. When McCorvey had a child by the priest and sued him and the diocese, Guzman gave a deposition and told of the affair with the 13-year-old.
Under questioning by McCorvey's attorney, Jack Zimmerman, Guzman complained that his superiors, Scheel, the late Bishop John L. Morkovsky and current diocesan head, Bishop Fiorenza, had refused to provide him with psychological counseling after he was caught with the girl and later, when McCorvey became pregnant with his child.
Guzman said Morkovsky, who died in March 1990, asked him "if I realized how big can be the scandal. And he told me also that maybe I could go to jail. " "What did he tell you to do when you got back to Navasota? " asked Zimmerman.
"Just "Don't do that again. ' " Guzman said he requested psychiatric treatment again, after the McCorvey affair, but received no reply. He approached one Catholic treatment center in San Antonio on his own, but was never treated.
Neither was the girl.
"I used to see her sometimes -- in a convenience store or on the street," said Ybarra. "She'd turn her head away and look down. " Fiorenza, in his deposition, said he had left the matter in Scheel's hands. Scheel, in turn, answered that "I didn't feel we had an obligation to go pursue the situation. " Guzman was charged with sexual abuse of a child after the civil case ended. He was brought to trial in June and, although a jury had already been seated, was allowed to plea bargain for a 10-year sentence with eligibility for shock probation in 90 days.
(Shock probation allows the release of some first offenders after a brief taste of prison life.) Grimes County District Attorney David Barron said he agreed to the plea bargain because the victim, now 22, had become reluctant to testify. She was so ashamed of the liaison that she had never told her parents, said Barron. The day of Guzman's trial, she saw her father in the crowd at the courthouse and did not want to take the stand because he remained unaware of her involvement in the case.
Today, Guzman no longer functions as a priest, though he has not been defrocked and could serve in his native Mexico. He served his 90 days in the Grimes County Jail and was released on shock probation Sept. 8 Grimes County probation officials refused to disclose Guzman's whereabouts.
McCorvey has moved out of state with her son, having lost her suit against the diocese. Days before that suit came to trial, however, the diocese adopted a set of "ethical and personal-conduct policies" that call for all cases of suspected child abuse to be reported to secular authorities and for background checks on prospective employees and priests.
Phone calls to Fiorenza were returned by Scheel. Scheel would not discuss the Guzman case, or others. "That happened back in 1984," he said. "Things were a lot different then. We didn't know about the tendency of these people to repeat their acts.
"We have this policy now and we are following it. We're trying to deal with cases as they arise as best we can. " Church officials avoided police involvement in the Guzman case until he brought the case to light on his own. But it was unavoidable in the case of Father Donald L. Stavinoha, who was caught in the act by a police officer.
On the night of May 1, 1986, Houston Police Officer Gerardo Gamez spotted a seemingly unoccupied van in a public park. Gamez looked in the van and saw a tall, thin man performing a sex act on a boy.
Gamez ordered the man out of the vehicle and was shocked when his prisoner turned to him and said, "I'm a man of the cloth. " "I slammed him up against the side of the van, then I pulled back and thought, "I want to kill this man,' " said Gamez.
"I didn't recognize him at the time, but he was my priest. " Gamez called for assistance -- "I was afraid I'd tear into him, beat him, and I didn't want to ruin the case" -- and Stavinoha was taken downtown. There, Officer Alphonso Amato Jr.was booking him into jail when the policeman noticed Stavinoha was laughing slightly.
"I asked him what he was laughing about," said Amato. "He told me, "They won't do anything to me. I'm a priest. ' " Stavinoha had begun sex acts with the boy when the child was 9 and continued until he was 11. The priest had started his ministry at St. Anthony's Seminary in San Antonio in the late 1960s, then moved to Falfurrias and several other South Texas towns and to southern Mexico before coming to Houston. He had no police record in the other communities.
The mother of the boy sued the diocese, which paid for psychological counseling for her and her son. Her attorney, Neal Hirschfield, contended the church had "constructive knowledge" that Stavinoha was molesting the boy, but that was never proved.
The case was settled for an undisclosed sum before it could go to trial, with the stipulation that none of the parties could discuss the facts.
Stavinoha's statement to Amato was prophetic. Before his guilty plea, he was stripped of his priestly duties and sent to treatment centers in San Antonio and New Mexico. He remained a priest, however, and was allowed to wear his vestments on special occasions, though he could not hear confessions or say the Mass.
On Jan. 9, 1990, he pleaded guilty to sexual assault of a child and was sentenced to 10 years. He was released under mandatory supervision March 14, 1991, at age 48, having served a year and two months, and was returned to San Antonio. The seminary there shows no assignment for him, though he listed it as his destination.
And Gamez dropped out of the church.
"I had two boys in catechism class with him," said Gamez.
"I thought about what I'd seen in that van and I just lost a lot of faith.
"My wife and sons still go to church, but not me.
"I haven't been to church since that night. "
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