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  2 Families Say Priest Offended Again after His 1976 Conviction
Barred S.J. Clergyman Denies Reports He Molested Teen, Pursued Young Man

By Brandon Bailey
San Jose Mercury News [California]
July 14, 2002

Two new accusations of sexual misconduct have surfaced against a San Jose priest, involving incidents that allegedly took place after he was returned to ministry following a 1976 conviction for fondling a 12-year-old boy.

The Rev. Leonel Noia, a longtime pastor at Five Wounds Portuguese National Church, was permanently barred from ministry last month by San Jose Bishop Patrick J. McGrath. Since then, a number of parishioners have argued that McGrath's action was unfair to a dedicated priest who committed only a single offense so long ago.

Now two families are alleging that Noia's misconduct did not end in 1976.

Noia said the new charges are "absolutely not true" and added: "Honestly, I am not that kind of person. I am appalled that this would come up now."

The 55-year-old priest denied knowing the late John William Mancha, whose family is making one of the allegations. But diocese personnel records show the youth was hired to work part time at St. Anthony Parish in 1985, when Mancha was 17 and Noia was pastor at the tiny church in New Almaden. The files include a form submitted by Noia when Mancha left.

Noia acknowledged meeting the second alleged victim, Richard Joseph Hernandez, but he disputed Hernandez's allegation that Noia made repeated sexual advances after the young man's parents sent him to stay with Noia when he was considering becoming a priest. Records show that Hernandez's mother complained about Noia to then-Bishop Pierre DuMaine in 1990, but it appears that no action was taken.

Families come forward

Neither of the families raising the accusations has filed a lawsuit or sought any compensation. They say they are speaking out now because Noia has publicly insisted that he never repeated his 1976 offense, and because his supporters have said they feel Noia has redeemed himself since then.

"I think those parishioners should know that he still did it. I want them to know that he didn't stop," said Linda Rodriguez, Mancha's older sister.

She and Hernandez, as well as others contacted for this article, acknowledge their memories are hazy when it comes to dates and other important details from more than a decade ago. While the Mercury News was able to corroborate portions of each account, the newspaper could not independently verify the alleged misconduct itself.

But the accusations come as church officials and lay Roman Catholics are still struggling with the issue of sexual misconduct by priests. The debate has not ended since the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops met in Dallas last month and adopted a controversial policy of "zero tolerance" for any clergyman who sexually exploits a child.

Church policy was different when Noia was arrested in 1976, after two San Jose boys told sheriff's deputies that he had molested them during a camping trip. Noia ultimately pleaded no contest to fondling the younger boy; a second charge was dropped.

After spending time in jail, attending therapy sessions and serving a period of probation, Noia was allowed back to work in 1978 by then-Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco. Noia was required to disclose his conviction to parishioners. He later served at two other churches under Bishop DuMaine.

During an interview earlier this year, Noia expressed remorse for any harm that he caused in 1976, although he said he was drinking heavily during the three-day camp-out and didn't remember doing anything inappropriate. The boy and his 14-year-old brother had testified that Noia showed them pornography and invited them to inhale a sexual stimulant before he fondled each of them on separate nights.

Noia also said in the interview that he never had any other sexual contact with a minor. That made Linda Rodriguez angry enough to call the Mercury News.

John Mancha's story

Rodriguez, who works for a local tech company, says her younger brother John had gone through a difficult adolescence and was raised primarily by his single mother and older sisters. Shortly before his eighteenth birthday, she says, her brother told her that he was gay and that Noia had sexually molested him.

Mancha died of AIDS in 1999. Rodriguez said he never spelled out what kind of sexual contact he had with the priest.

But another sister also says Mancha told her he had been molested; although she spoke with the Mercury News, she didn't want her name published. They say their brother didn't want anyone to know what happened. Only later did they tell their mother, Carmelita Johnson.

The youth had been working on weekends as a sacristan, a person who helps clean up and maintain the religious items in a church. Mancha's family belonged to a different parish; he told his sisters that he first met Noia when the priest stopped to give him a ride on San Carlos Street.

When he started the job, Johnson says she liked the idea of her son working for a priest. She and John's sisters say they each met Noia when they drove John to work. And when the boy quit without saying why, they assumed it was teenage restlessness.

Family and friends say John Mancha had a rocky time in his teens and early 20s, including drug use and a suicide attempt. But they say he eventually settled down with a satisfying job and a committed relationship before he died at age 31.

Aside from his sisters, the Mercury News located two friends who say Mancha told them about being molested by a priest -- although neither could recall Mancha mentioning the priest's name. Rosylin Dean said she remembers Mancha talking about his job at a South San Jose church.

"He told me the priest had molested him and he wasn't going back there," said Dean, a family friend whose husband, the late community activist Al Traugott, was a co-worker of Linda Rodriguez's and an unofficial big brother for John.

Dean, who had not spoken with Mancha's family before a reporter contacted her, said the teen was in anguish: His mother was urging him to keep the job, and he didn't want to tell his mother what had happened. He made Dean promise not to say anything.

'That never happened'

Noia, however, said he didn't recall Mancha or meeting his family. He said no teenagers ever worked for him at St. Anthony Parish, and he denied molesting the youth.

"That never happened. I never abused anybody," said Noia, who spoke with a reporter two weeks ago outside the gate of an isolated, wooded property in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where the priest has owned an old house for several years.

After that interview, the Mercury News learned that church personnel records show Mancha worked at St. Anthony from January 1985 to February 1986. Mancha was born in December 1967, which means he had just turned 17 when he started the job and was 18 when he quit.

But the personnel file shows an incorrect birth date that would have made Mancha appear to be 18 when he started the job. The distinction could be significant, since any sexual contact with an 18-year-old would not be a crime.

Diocese personnel director Linda Bearie said it's unclear who provided the incorrect birth date for the file. She said the diocese generally would not hire someone under 18 for that type of work.

The Mercury News made three attempts to contact Noia after learning about the diocese employment records but was unsuccessful.

In the interview two weeks ago, Noia also denied the Hernandez allegations, although Noia acknowledged meeting the prospective seminarian more than a decade ago. Hernandez's parents had learned of the priest through mutual acquaintances and asked him to host their son when he visited a local seminary.

Hernandez, now a 38-year-old teacher who lives in the Midwest, says he can't remember exactly when the visit occurred, although he believes it was in 1987, when he was 23.

According to Hernandez, Noia met him at San Francisco International Airport and took him sightseeing during a four- or five-day visit. They went to Fishermans Wharf in San Francisco, to Palo Alto and to a nude beach, according to Hernandez, who said Noia also took him to interview at a seminary where Noia knew some of the priests.

At one point on their sightseeing tour, Hernandez said they stayed in a motel rather than return to San Jose. According to Hernandez, Noia approached him in the motel's hot tub and tried to give him oral sex. Hernandez said he pushed the priest away.

Hernandez said Noia made another advance in the rectory at Five Wounds, where Hernandez says he spent at least two nights as the priest's guest. He said the priest showed him pornography that he kept in a closet, as well as a stack of currency. According to Hernandez, the priest offered him money if they had sex, but the younger man says he refused.

Although he didn't like the priest's behavior, Hernandez said, he didn't try to cut short his trip. "I didn't feel threatened like he was going to try to rape me," he explained, "but I was uncomfortable that he was trying hard to convince me."

A conflicting account

Noia denied each of Hernandez's allegations and offered a different account of Hernandez's visit.

The priest said he met Hernandez at a bus station, where the young man was arriving after a stop in Sacramento. After dinner at the Five Wounds rectory, Noia said Hernandez stayed in a guest room but Noia himself left to sleep at his parents' home.

The next day, after taking Hernandez to an interview, Noia says he put the young man on a plane home and never saw him again. Later, however, Noia says another priest who was staying at the rectory told him an odd story: Hernandez had told this priest, the Rev. Joseph Costa, about being sexually accosted by a Sacramento clergyman.

Both Costa and the Sacramento clergyman are now dead. Hernandez denied Noia's account.

Some time after Hernandez's visit, Bishop DuMaine asked Noia about the young man, according to Noia, although he said the bishop never directly asked if anything had happened between them.

Noia said DuMaine also told him that Hernandez's mother had made a complaint about an unnamed clergyman, but the bishop told him the story "was not believable."

Records at the San Jose diocese confirm that Hernandez's mother complained specifically about Noia, but there was no formal investigation. Since the alleged victim was an adult, said the Rev. Francis Cilia, vicar general for the diocese, "the mother was told to please have him write to us so we could take action."

Hernandez's mother told the Mercury News that she thought the bishop promised to look into her complaint on the basis of her statement alone.

DuMaine has previously declined to discuss Noia with the Mercury News. The retired bishop did not return phone calls seeking comment for this article.

 
 

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