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  Priest Arrested on Sex Charge Hanford Cleric Also Is Accused of Trying to Dissuade a Witness

By Marc Benjamin
Fresno Bee
March 13, 2002

A Catholic priest has been arrested and booked on suspicion of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl who served as a part-time employee of his church.

The girl, who was not identified because of her age and the nature of the charge, told Hanford police that Miguel Flores, a priest at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church on the southern edge of Hanford, raped her in his church residence Feb. 16.

The case against Flores is the latest in a string of sexual-misconduct allegations nationwide against the Catholic Church. It's also the second in recent weeks to come to light in the San Joaquin Valley. In Turlock, a man reported being molested as a teen by a Catholic priest and a former church worker.

On Sunday, a Vallejo priest resigned after a woman filed a complaint of sexual misconduct against him. And Tuesday, the Boston Archdiocese agreed to pay up to $30 million to 86 people who accused a defrocked priest of molestation.

In the Hanford case, the girl did not report the incident to police until Saturday, 21 days after the alleged rape.

"As far as we know, this is the only incident," said Hanford police Cmdr. Chris Jordan.

Police also booked Flores, a priest for seven years, on charges of attempting to dissuade a witness. He was booked into Kings County Jail late Monday and was bailed out in lieu of $70,000.

"The father adamantly denies the allegations against him and, we are confident the truth will come out as we move through the proceedings," said Rick Conway, the Hanford lawyer representing Flores.

The girl worked part-time for Flores, 34, at Tranquillity Catholic Church, beginning in mid-January, Jordan said. Flores transferred to the Hanford church about a month ago.

The 16-year-old, who lives in San Joaquin about 50 miles from Hanford, took a job with Flores when he moved to Hanford.

Jordan said the girl had worked for Flores for two weeks before his transfer became effective in early February. She also worked for him for two weeks in Hanford at the time the alleged sexual assault is said to have taken place.

"Our focus has been on the victim and getting information to get to the place to believe there is sufficient cause a crime occurred," Jordan said.

In a brief statement, the Diocese of Fresno said Flores has been placed on a leave of absence as the investigation continues.

"Father Miguel Flores has been charged with improper behavior," the statement issued Tuesday said. "Father Flores denies any wrongdoing. ... We will fully cooperate with this investigation so justice may be served. We ask for prayers for all persons involved and for the parish community."

Inside the mission-style church, a sparse number of parishioners strode in and out to offer prayers Tuesday, crossing and sprinkling themselves with holy water as they departed.

The church office was closed Tuesday, and children's catechism classes also were canceled, according to a hand-drawn sign at the front of the church school.

One woman who lives near the church and was baptized, married and had her children baptized in the church, said she was shocked by the allegations.

The woman, who asked not to be identified, said she never met Flores but knew that a new priest was recently hired to serve as a second priest.

"Oh, my God," the woman said after reading the statement from Hanford police. "It's a sad, sad day for our church; it's really too bad. I am upset by this happening."

Cornelio Rosas, 76, whose central Hanford apartment is adorned with literature featuring the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ, said he found it difficult to believe allegations against Flores. Rosas said Flores always preaches about helping others.

"He is a very good priest, a very strong priest," Rosas said. "That's the way it happens, the good Catholics get banged around."

Since Flores bailed out of jail, his arraignment is not expected for a few weeks, said Patrick Hart, Kings County chief deputy district attorney.

Hart said he received an oral briefing on the case from Hanford police but his office hasn't received the case, which he expects in hand later this week.

 
 

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