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  Area Bishops Decry Church Sex Scandals

By Michael D. Hernandez
El Paso Times
March 27, 2002

As area Roman Catholics celebrate Holy Week, bishops in El Paso and Las Cruces have stepped forward to confront the sex-abuse scandals that have rocked the church in the United States.

In a Palm Sunday Mass at St. Patrick Cathedral, Bishop Armando X. Ochoa of the Catholic Diocese of El Paso addressed growing concerns over the nationwide stream of allegations of priests' sexual misconduct.

The scandals have been the subject of a statement by Pope John Paul II and the focus of many lawsuits, one of which claimed the nation's bishops are involved in a conspiracy of silence to protect the offenders.

"I just didn't want to walk away from this issue," Ochoa said during Sunday's Mass. "Though it is a small number of priests that have caused this great harm, we need to reach out to the victims and the survivors of these incidents. ... And as I have been meeting with several groups during this Holy Week, I have been assuring them that we are doing what we can to make sure this does not happen here."

Ochoa said a letter he has written addresses the scandal thoroughly. It will be published in the April issue of the Rio Grande Catholic, the monthly diocesan newspaper for El Paso, to be out April 6.

Under diocesan policy, any member of the clergy or laity under investigation for sexual misconduct is to be placed on paid administrative leave.

The El Paso Diocese's guidelines for investigating sexual misconduct include a taped report of the accuser's account to the chancellor, a meeting with the accused and an independent investigation that is reviewed by a committee of clergy and laity, Ochoa said.

The El Paso Diocese's only current allegations involve Father Jose Alfredo Olivas, who was pastor at Santo Ni?o de Atocha Catholic Church from 1992 to 1999. He is on leave until a church investigation is concluded, officials said.

Olivas was accused of fondling a 13-year-old boy at a pool party four years ago, but criminal charges were dismissed by the district attorney in October 2001 because the boy and his family asked the district attorney not to pursue the case, officials said. Ochoa said guidelines set by the diocese dictate that Olivas have no contact with parishioners or children during his leave.

Las Cruces Bishop Ricardo Ramirez has sent a letter to be read aloud by clergy during Holy Thursday and Good Friday services. In his letter, Ramirez offers a public apology "for the deep harm done to children by people in a position of trust, especially Catholic priests" and goes on to state that "the church has not always handled cases adequately."

Ramirez said that no sexual-abuse lawsuits have been filed against the Southern New Mexican diocese and that the diocese has not made any out-of-court settlements.

"We have been spared that agony, but we continue to be careful about who works for us," he said. "We are dealing with a very tragic situation, and these crimes and sins against young people I have no tolerance for, now and in the future."

Ramirez said that once any report of sexual misconduct is made, guidelines set by the Catholic Diocese of Las Cruces stipulate that proper authorities be alerted.

Reports on the nightly news and questions from her two daughters about the scandal have prompted Eastsider Alicia Hinojos to turn to her Catholic faith more often in the past several weeks.

"I'm hurt by all of this," she said. "I deeply love and trust the people that help guide my faith, but I'm troubled that this seems like it could happen just about anywhere."

Father Stephen Peters, pastor of Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Northeast El Paso, said those sentiments have been echoed by many of his parishioners.

Last Friday, he led his parishioners in an hourlong prayer session devoted to the issue.

"What we need to do is pray for the priests who have committed the crimes against the children, and we've got to pray for the victims," he said.

Peters said he was pleased to hear the pope's statement last week calling on the church to openly and honestly confront the issue of sexual abuse.

"I was very glad to see that," he said. "The Holy Father is saying, 'We have got a problem here, folks.' "

 
 

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