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  Mecca Priest Accused of Sexual Misconduct:
Catholic Church: the Alleged Actions Took Place about 20 Years Ago, a Diocese Official Says

By Michael Fisher
Press Enterprise [Riverside, CA]
June 25, 2002

Mecca — The pastor of Sanctuary of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Mecca was put on administrative leave Monday after a woman accused him of past sexual misconduct, diocese officials said. The woman, whose name was not released, lodged a complaint last week of "sexual harassment and misconduct involving a minor" against the Rev. Saul Ayala, according to the Diocese of San Bernardino.

"The accusation refers to alleged actions of approximately 20 years ago and, to the best of our knowledge at this time, there was no physical molestation," said the Rev. Howard Lincoln, a diocese spokesman. Further details about the allegation were not released.

Ayala, the church's pastor since 1991, could not be reached for comment Monday. He was out of town, according to workers at the Mecca church, located about 35 miles southeast of Palm Springs. Ayala, who has served in the diocese, which serves Riverside and San Bernardino counties, for more than 20 years, was present during all four Masses on Sunday at the church, Lincoln said. During the services, Auxiliary Bishop Dennis O'Neil read a letter written by the diocese's leader, Bishop Gerald Barnes, who reminded parishioners that Ayala remains innocent until proven otherwise.

"At this time, it is necessary for Father Ayala to be placed immediately on administrative leave from active ministry," wrote Barnes, leader of the million-member diocese. "Father Ayala accepts this decision and he is cooperating fully."

Lincoln said the accusation was sent Monday to San Bernardino police, who have agreed to review such claims to determine which law enforcement agency has jurisdiction in the area where an incident allegedly occurred.

Detectives said they could not confirm receiving any information from the diocese Monday. The diocese has also launched its own investigation, Lincoln said. Ayala's accuser made her allegation in a letter received last week by the diocese, Lincoln said. Diocese officials have since spoken to her.

The misconduct allegedly occurred in the greater San Bernardino area, said Lincoln, adding that the exact location is unclear. News of the accusation comes about two weeks after a man claimed he was sexually abused 12 years ago by the Rev. Paul Shanley, who was transferred from Massachusetts to St. Anne Catholic Church in San Bernardino in 1990.

The accusation is the first in California to target Shanley, a central figure in the nationwide sex scandal gripping the Roman Catholic Church.

The man, whose name has not been released, contends he spent time with Shanley at St. Anne, as well as in Big Bear, Palm Springs and San Diego. But Shanley's accuser may have turned 18 before the alleged abuse occurred. That would undermine the chance for any criminal charges to be filed against the retired priest if his accusations are substantiated, police have said. Shanley, 71, remains jailed in Massachusetts where he was indicted last week on 10 counts of child rape and six counts of indecent assault on a child.

 
 

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