Case Continues against Valley Priest As New Allegations Emerge
By Emma Perez-Trevi�o
June 30, 2002
EDINBURG � In a local battle of church and state, the state claimed superiority.
State District Judge Noe Gonzalez in Edinburg recently denied a motion to dismiss a lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brownsville. Gonzalez found that neither the U.S. Constitution nor the Doctrine of Church Autonomy protects the diocese from legal action in state court.
The ruling allows an April 2001 sexual abuse lawsuit to proceed against the diocese and 34-year-old Father Basil Chukwuma Onyia, even as the number of Onyia�s alleged victims grows.
A 19-year-old woman from McAllen claims that Onyia, who served at the Basilica de San Juan Shrine in San Juan and the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Harlingen, kissed her on the mouth and licked her eyes and eyebrows as she was crying when she went to the chapel in San Juan in April 2000 to seek a priest�s advice about personal matters.
The McAllen woman�s statement is among numerous documents recently introduced into the record regarding the lawsuit that the minor girl and her mother filed.
Onyia allegedly sexually assaulted the girl from January 2000 to February 2001. He fled last year amid a criminal investigation into the allegation and he has not been located.
Gonzalez, who presides over the 370th District Court, also ordered the diocese to respond to questions posed by the attorneys representing the minor girl and her mother.
�I can�t comment,� Brownsville lawyer David C. Garza, who represents the diocese, said Thursday, pointing out that he had not received a copy of the orders that Gonzalez signed.
�We are elated with the ruling. It�s a great step for us,� the girl�s attorney Fernando Mancias of Magallanes, Hinojosa and Mancias of Mission and Brownsville said.
�It is a victory and the court is doing the right thing. It allows us to move forward and develop the case,� Mancias further said of Gonzalez� ruling.
The plaintiffs� attorney said he likely will seek to take the deposition of Bishop Raymundo J. Pena as the head of the diocese.
Mancias contends the diocese was negligent in hiring and allowing Onyia to remain as a parish priest when it knew or should have known of his alleged sexual pedophilic propensities.
Garza and co-counsel Edmundo O. Ramirez of McAllen have argued that the U.S. Constitution forbids the court from interfering with the church�s right to establish its own internal rules and regulations and to police itself.
Garza also argued that there is ample case law recognizing the separation of church and state.
He said the challenge to the court�s jurisdiction is not a statement that the diocese condones any of the alleged activity.
�If these alleged actions are true, they are wrong,� Garza said, noting that the issue at hand was whether the court has jurisdiction over the diocese.
Mancias countered that the Catholic Church cannot be allowed to escape accountability for the sexual misconduct of its priest.
�The Church cannot insulate itself from all accountability under the First Amendment,� Mancias said.
And as the case develops, Mancias also said Friday that it took a lot of courage for the McAllen woman to come forth.
�When she was victimized on April, 20, 2000, her boyfriend called the Diocese in Brownsville the same day to let them know what happened. He spoke to a lady in the Diocese and the lady assured him that she would let Bishop Pena know,� Mancias said.
�Nothing was done about it,� Mancias said, pointing out that when Onyia kissed and licked the McAllen woman, he was also assaulting the minor girl and continued the assaults into 2001.
Besides calling the diocese, the McAllen victim filed a report with the San Juan Police Department the same day of the incident but told officers she did not want to file charges at that time.
She came forth a year later and contacted the police department in May 2001 when she heard news reports that a warrant had been issued for Onyia�s arrest for the assaults on the minor girl.
�She added that at the time that she reported the incident, she felt that we, the police department, would not believe her so she decided not to file charges,� the May police report states.
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