Fugitive Priest Left No Tracks
Tyler Morning Telegraph
May 11, 2002
EDITOR'S NOTE: It is the policy of the Tyler newspapers to withhold names and identities of sexual assault victims to encourage victims to report assaults to law enforcement officials.
A child molestation complaint filed years ago against a Tyler priest has gone virtually unnoticed - even by federal law officers charged with tracking down the priest, a South American missionary believed to have fled the United States.
Police arrested the Rev. Gustavo DeJesus Cuello in April 1997 on a charge of aggravated sexual assault of a child after a 14-year-old church parishioner told officers the priest had sex with her each Wednesday and Sunday before activities at his church.
Church members posted Cuello's $50,000 bond and authorities say he slipped out of the country less than a month later without a trace.
"The people of the parish - some parishioners who were supporters of Father Cuello - collected enough money to post his bail. Once bailed out, no one had thought to take his passport or anything from him," said Jim Smith, chief financial officer for the Catholic Diocese of Tyler.
A civil lawsuit filed in 1998 against Tyler's Catholic Diocese alleging a cover-up that allowed the abuse to continue was eventually settled out of court.
The diocese, however, maintains it suspended Cuello from ministry as soon as the alleged offense was reported. Throughout the suit and a grand jury investigation resulting in a felony indictment against him, Cuello, 39, has remained on the run.
Tyler FBI Agent Jeff Millslagle said Saturday he expects a federal judge to sign a warrant Monday charging Cuello with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. The warrant would authorize the FBI to embark on a national and international search for Cuello.
"After all these years, the whole time I thought everyone knew and that they were looking for him," said the victim, now a 20-year-old college student. "How are they going to find him now, after all these years?"
Millslagle said he was not aware of the case until last week when the Tyler Courier-Times--Telegraph began asking questions and a prosecutor contacted him to check the status on the search for Cuello.
"We never got involved in that case but we are researching it and it is something we can get involved in," Millslagle said.
Assistant District Attorney Alicia Cashell reviewed Cuello's case file last week for the first time since 1997. She found a copy of a request for federal assistance in locating Cuello and assumed one had been forwarded to the FBI.
Millslagle said his office never received the request but is committed to tracking down the suspect.
The victim, who reported the alleged abuse after confiding in her mother, told police Cuello had sex with her before Wednesday choir practice, before Sunday Mass and at various times in his vehicle. The alleged abuse, which she says began in June 1996 when she was 13, continued until April 1997.
Court records reflect Cuello became close to the victim's family after befriending them at his church, Our Lady of Guadalupe, 922 Old Omen Road. The victim said she and her family stopped attending the church after she reported the allegedabuse.
"They completely did not believe me, but they believed him," she said. "They turned everyone against us. The church did not want to help me. Now, it's really sad to hear about this happening to little kids all over the world."
The young woman said she and her family have been through "a lot of chaos" since she reported Cuello.
"I was on anti-depression pills," she said. "I felt really bad, especially with everyone against me. The church acted like he (Cuello) was God and they wouldn't believe a 14-year-old. Now, they should believe it because of all the stories that are coming out."
QUESTIONS OF CHURCH INVOLVEMENT
Smith remembers accompanying the Most Rev. Edmund Carmody, then bishop of the Diocese of Tyler, to Our Lady of Guadalupe the night Cuello was arrested.
"Early one morning, around midnight or 1 a.m., I got a phone call from Bishop Carmody at home," he said. "He had received a call from the Tyler Police Department. They said they were looking for Father Gustavo Cuello and that they had information he was going to flee the country to avoid allegations of sexual misconduct."
Smith, a trusted friend and colleague of Carmody, said he accompanied the bishop to Our Lady of Guadalupe's rectory, where they found Cuello sleeping.
Smith said civil lawsuit allegations that the diocese tried to cover up Cuello's alleged crime or failed to intervene are false.
"I personally called the police and identified myself with the diocese to let them know I had Cuello in my presence. They asked me to keep him in my physical presence until they arrived," he said.
According to documents from the criminal case, the girl's family contacted police again after Cuello was arrested. Their second complaint alleges church members harassed them, attempting to persuade them to drop the charges against the priest.
The family's civil attorney, Mark Mann of Henderson, said "someone from the church" offered the family money to dismiss the case.
Mrs. Cashell said there is evidence to suggest church members helped Cuello flee the country but not enough to pin charges on particular individuals.
"Obviously we felt like the church helped him," Mrs. Cashell said. "They made his bond."
Court records show the victim's mother warned authorities Cuello had discussed returning to Colombia. Before coming to the United States, Cuello ministered at the Archdiocese of Guayaquil in Ecuador, where he was ordained in 1989.
After Cuello's release from Smith County Jail, investigators learned he reserved a one-way ticket - a copy of which is filed at the courthouse - for $916 to Guayaquil. On May 20, 1997, prosecutors rushed to a judge to request an arrest warrant with no bond. State District Judge Cynthia Kent raised the bond to $250,000 but attempts to re-arrest Cuello on the new bond were futile.
Mrs. Cashell said police repeatedly questioned officials at the Immaculate Conception church, who assured them the priest was there.
"They were giving him time to get out of the country," she said. "Definitely, at the time, we felt he was helped."
The Most Rev. Alvaro Corrada, bishop of the Diocese of Tyler, denies allegations the diocese helped Cuello flee.
"The diocese did not post bail for him. He absconded without our knowledge and withdrew without our permission," he said.
Corrada bases his statements on information imparted to him by Carmody, who was reassigned as bishop of the Diocese of Corpus Christi in March 2000.
"I know Bishop Carmody did not aid and abet him in leaving the country. Bishop Carmody told me the man escaped and he did not know where he was," said Corrada, who was named bishop of the Tyler Diocese in December 2000.
Carmody did not return a phone call left Thursday at his Corpus Christi office.
Mann said he learned Cuello did not use the plane ticket but apparently slipped out of the country on foot.
"We searched for Cuello for awhile and we think he sneaked away in the middle of the night," Mann said.
He said the civil suit against the diocese was settled out of court two years ago. Mann would not disclose the terms but said the victim received enough money to get her through college, and the funds were paid from a church insurance policy.
"The money was never a question, but they (the church) never did anything to help me or my family," the victim said.
Though he could not comment on the criminal case against Cuello since it is pending, Corrada speculated the Tyler Diocese might have settled the civil lawsuit to avoid negative publicity.
"Up to that point in history - that was 1998 - the church would try to settle those cases out of court if possible," he said. "Sometimes the victim did not want it to become public. Sometimes the victims did not want to act directly to harm the church in public. Third, the church did not want any public scandal," Corrada said.
"I would not settle today. I would let cases run their course in court," he said.
In Cuello's case, Corrada said the diocese cannot judge whether a crime was committed. "We leave that to the courts and police."
However, with the civil suit, Corrada said the diocese might have settled based on the credibility of the accusation. "The credibility was there when he fled," Corrada said.
"Every so often, the police call and inquire if we have any knowledge of him. We don't. If I had any knowledge of him, I would report it to the police immediately because that's my attitude toward those cases," Corrada said.
If he is caught and convicted, Cuello could receive five to 99 years or life in prison for the first-degree felony offense of aggravated sexual assault of a child.
"When we find him, I will seek a life sentence," Mrs. Cashell said. "It may take a while, but he'll turn up somewhere."
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