Priest Resigns Post after Criminal Record Resurfaces
Then-St. Rita Pastor Pleaded Guilty to Charges Involving 3 Boys in '92
By Judith Cebula
April 9, 2002
A Catholic priest has resigned from his post at a Southern California church after officials there learned he had been accused 10 years ago of molesting children while he led an Indianapolis parish.
The Rev. Ponciano Ramos was pastor at St. Rita Catholic Church in 1992 when he was charged with child molesting after he strip-searched three boys who had set off stink bombs in the parish school. He pleaded guilty to lesser charges — three misdemeanor counts of battery — and received an 18-month suspended sentence and 15 months of probation.
According to court records, Ramos touched the genitals of the seventh- and eighth-graders when he searched beneath the boys' underwear. But prosecutors were unable to prove the priest had touched the boys with sexual intent, according to Indianapolis newspaper accounts of the court case, which unfolded in 1992 and 1993. Ramos, now 55, is a priest with the Society of Divine Word, a religious order of priests and brothers that serves ethnically diverse and poor parishes around the world. Unlike priests affiliated with dioceses, religious order priests take vows of obedience to their order, not to a bishop. Essentially, many work as contract employees in dioceses where they help run parishes.
Ramos' case resurfaced late last week at St. Mary Catholic Church in Yucca Valley, Calif., where he was parish administrator. Journalists for the Chicago Tribune contacted officials of the San Bernardino Diocese to learn whether they knew about Ramos' 1993 conviction when they placed him in parish ministry.
St. Mary parishioners, including former Indianapolis resident Richard Sroda, learned Sunday during Mass that Ramos had resigned.
"As a lifelong Catholic, I resent the diocese not revealing his criminal background," Sroda said. "He pleaded guilty to violating three boys, accepted probation, and we have a right to know."
But the San Bernardino Diocese might not have known about Ramos' past, according to diocesan officials. They said Ramos came to the diocese with a good recommendation from the Western Province of the Society of Divine Word.
Ramos joined the Western Province of the international religious order in 1994 as treasurer, a job in which he had no contact with children. The Chicago Province, which includes Indianapolis, had assigned Ramos to St. Rita. Province officials allowed him to transfer to the Western Province after he received more than a year of counseling.
The Rev. Stanley Uroda, head of the Chicago Province, said he in formed the Western Province of Ramos' criminal history.
"My job was to make sure the Western Province knew about the case," Uroda said. "Father Ramos was still on probation. We needed to be clear about his past."
Uroda said he believes communication broke down between 1994 — when Ramos moved to California— and 1998, when he began working in parishes in the San Bernardino Diocese.
"We are learning that extreme care has to be taken every time a person changes from one jurisdiction to another," he said. "Everyone needs to understand that no matter how embarrassing or how difficult it may be, the information has to be passed along so that the provincial or the bishop in charge can make a decision on how it will affect their liability."
Several St. Rita parishioners contacted for this story declined to comment about Ramos, their former priest. Society of Divine Word priests have served the parish since 1974.
But D. Hollowell-Williams, a member of Holy Angels Catholic Church in Indianapolis, said the Ramos case illustrates how church leaders need to be open about clergy who abuse children.
"Even if we're only talking about a priest who is unable to control his temper or who uses an inappropriate method to discipline a child, someone needs to make sure he does not have further contact with children," she said. "That is for the priests' sake as well as for the children."
Currently, 23 priests from various religious orders serve in parishes across the 39-county Indianapolis Archdiocese. Most are Benedictine and Franciscan priests. Five Society of Divine Word priests live in and serve St. Rita parish.
Indianapolis archdiocesan officials were not involved in the 1992 investigation of Ramos, church spokeswoman Susan Borcherts said, because child protective services and the Marion County prosecutor were investigating the case before the archdiocese learned of the incident. His religious order paid for his lawyers and determined treatment in the wake of the criminal conviction.
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