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  Hanford Priest Not Guilty Jury Acquits Rev. Miguel Flores of Rape Charges

By Kerri Ginis
Fresno Bee
August 24, 2002

The Rev. Miguel Flores looked to the ceiling and breathed a heavy sigh of relief after a Kings County Superior Court jury acquitted him of all charges, including rape, Friday afternoon.

The Roman Catholic priest left the courtroom hugging dozens of his supporters. Many who attended the weeklong trial prayed and cried as eight "not guilty" votes were read.

"I feel real real happy because finally the truth came out," Flores said through a Spanish-language interpreter while wiping tears from his eyes. "Thanks to everyone who has been working really hard in my favor."

The jury took two hours to find Flores innocent of three counts of forcible rape, three counts of statutory rape, dissuading a witness and criminal threat charges. Flores faced up to 27 years in prison had he been convicted.

Flores, 34, said he doesn't know whether he will return to his parish duties at Hanford's Immaculate Heart of Mary Church. He said his immediate plans were "to celebrate." Flores has been a priest for seven years.

Flores was accused of raping and threatening a 16-year-old San Joaquin girl who worked as his office assistant at churches in Tranquillity and Hanford. He had been free on bond since his arrest in March.

Flores' attorney, Rick Conway, said the jury reached the right decision based on the evidence that was presented during the trial.

"There is no basis for the allegations," he said after the verdict. "I think the reaction from our standpoint was one of elation and relief. We're very thankful the right decision was made."

Deputy District Attorney Anna Ferguson said she doesn't regret taking the case to a jury: "I'm convinced justice was done. I think the jury did what they thought was appropriate."

The girl, now 17, claimed Flores attacked her in his church residence on three occasions in January and February. She said he threatened to hurt her younger sisters or her family if she told anyone what happened.

But the defense said the girl and her family made up the allegations because they wanted to extort money from the wealthy priest. Flores testified his family sent him money every month to help church members who were struggling financially.

He bought the teenager a 2002 Ford Mustang GT, a cellular phone, jewelry and clothing. He said the gifts were acts of kindness.

Flores' case played out amid months of scandal in which more than 200 priests across the country either have been implicated in or removed from their positions because of sexual misconduct. In the Fresno diocese, which stretches from Bakersfield to Merced and serves 360,000 Catholics, Flores was the only priest facing criminal charges.

Fresno Bishop John T. Steinbock was on vacation and could not be reached to comment Friday, but the diocese issued a statement that said Flores wouldn't return to active ministry until 2003.

For the next several months, Flores will undergo a spiritual renewal, most likely at a retreat house, where he will pray and receive guidance from spiritual directors, said Bill Lucido, communications director for the Diocese of Fresno.

The diocese also plans to offer the 17-year-old and her family pastoral and professional counseling.

Flores said Friday that he doesn't have any ill feelings toward the victim or her family.

During closing arguments, Conway told jurors that there was no physical evidence the priest had sex with the teenager. He said the case was always about money.

He told of statements made by the teenager to her sister-in-law that she planned to sue Flores for $1 million so she could get a better car than the one Flores gave her.

The teenager, who did not attend court proceedings Friday, will be informed of the verdict through victim services. Ferguson had not spoken to the girl after the verdict was announced but said her "thoughts and prayers" were with her.

Many of the parishioners who attended the trial said they never doubted Flores' innocence.

"He's a nice priest who helps people all the time," said Christina Lopez, who has known Flores for almost two years. "We knew he didn't do this."

Others said they were thrilled he was cleared of wrongdoing.

"I'm so happy the truth came out," Tranquillity resident Norberta Delgadillo said. "Thank God for justice."

 
 

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