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  Priest Accused of Soliciting Sex from Agent Posing As Teen

By Nicole Sterghos Brochu, Peter Franceschina, Tanya Weinberg, Noaki Schwartz and Diana Marrero
Sun-Sentinel [Fort Lauderdale FL]
September 11, 2002

Already in turmoil from a stream of sex scandals, the Diocese of Palm Beach found new reason for anguish on Tuesday when police here accused a local priest of soliciting sex from an online chat buddy he thought was 14 years old.

The Rev. Elias F. Guimaraes, 43, associate pastor at Our Lady Queen of Peace Mission west of Delray Beach, had served a largely migrant community for nearly two years when police say he unwittingly set up a sexual rendezvous with an undercover agent in an America Online chat room.

The agent, posing as a young teen, received a series of sexually graphic e-mails over a 10-day period starting Aug. 30, with the Brazilian-born priest boasting of his recent sexual encounters with a 16-year-old and a 14-year-old, Delray Beach Police spokesman Jeff Messer said.

Police think Guimaraes, recruited from his native country to serve the growing Brazilian community of Catholics in South Florida, used the mission's computer to log into the chat rooms. Detectives were trying to retrieve the equipment on Tuesday to search for evidence of other victims.

The priest is being held in the Palm Beach County Jail on charges of computer pornography and resisting arrest without violence. If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison.

"It's rather disturbing the extent and detail he went into [in the e-mails] about sex with juveniles," Messer said.

The arrest, coming a week after Pope John Paul II named a reformist bishop to repair a diocese rocked by scandal in recent years, shocked Guimaraes' parishioners and reminded others the Catholic Church has a long way to go to rid its ranks of problem priests.

"It's very, very troubling. It's just another painful reminder that sexual misconduct by priests is not ancient history and that kids are still at risk," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests. "People are horrified and sickened and desperately want to believe this is behind us, but we can't offer those assurances."

Incoming bishop mum

Bishop Sean P. O'Malley, who will leave the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., next month to take over the reins of this troubled diocese, said through a spokesman on Tuesday that he had no comment on Guimaraes' arrest.

"Until the bishop is installed in as bishop of Palm Beach, he isn't going to be commenting on things in Palm Beach," Fall River Diocese spokesman John Kearns said.

The Very Rev. James Murtagh, interim leader of the Palm Beach Diocese, said he was "distressed" at the news of Guimaraes' arrest and appealed to any victims to come forward "so we can be of some assistance."

Diocese officials declined to comment further, saying only that they were cooperating with the investigation.

But it was unclear on Tuesday exactly how Guimaraes, an order priest from the Society of St. Paul, had come to serve in a leadership role in a local parish.

The Society of St. Paul specializes in spreading the Catholic word through the media -- publishing, radio, and television -- and its priests are typically not assigned to parish work, said Father Matthew Roehrig, the order's provincial superior in the United States.

Roehrig said Guimaraes is listed in a St. Paul international directory as being on leave, but he said he could determine nothing further, adding that he was not aware the Brazilian priest was working in the United States.

Guimaraes had come to the Palm Beach Diocese from the Archdiocese of Miami in early 2001, said archdiocese spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta. From November 1999 until he left Miami, the religious order priest worked in the St. Paul bookstore in Miami and ministered to the Brazilian congregation served by the Nossa Senhora Aparecida Catholic Mission in Hollywood.

In Guimaraes' file in the Palm Beach Diocese offices is a letter from Sergio Dall'Agnese, the provincial leader of the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo-Scalabrinians, an order that ran the Hollywood mission Guimaraes worked with until last year.

Dall'Agnese, who has known Guimaraes since 1998, said that to the best of his knowledge, the priest had not been suspended or disciplined, criminally charged, accused of behavioral problems with minors or had his fitness called into question.

Records inconsistent

Palm Beach Diocese spokesman Deacon Sam Barbaro, who released a copy of the letter, could not explain why Guimaraes was listed as being on leave from his order and why he arrived with a letter from a different order vouching for his credentials.

Those with whom Guimaraes worked in Hollywood said they had no hint of any impropriety.

"You caught me off guard," said Vilmar Orsolin, director of the Nossa Senhora Aparecida Catholic Mission, remembering Guimaraes as "a very good teacher."

"I don't like hearing that. ... We have enough scandals."

So has the Palm Beach Diocese, where the last two bishops stepped down amid admissions of sexual misconduct with adolescent boys decades earlier. And in the past six months, diocese leaders have conceded that at least eight priests had come to serve in local churches after escaping sexual misconduct accusations elsewhere.

Diocese officials have been quick to point out that those incidents happened years ago in other states. In the case of a retired New York priest who resigned from a church west of Lake Worth in 1998 after a teenager accused him of trying to fondle him, diocese leaders said it did not technically constitute sex abuse because the boy thwarted the priest's advances.

Guimaraes' arrest, though, will be difficult to explain away.

According to the arrest affidavit, Guimaraes approached Detective John Young, a member of the Delray Beach Police Department's juvenile unit, when the officer was logged into a chat room posing as a 14-year-old boy. The priest wrote in graphic detail of his prior sexual contact with a 14-year-old and also explicitly described his encounter with a 16-year-old he met at the beach a week before.

Struggle with police

On Monday, Guimaraes suggested he and his new Internet friend meet at the same beachfront location, saying he would be wearing black shorts and a white T-shirt but no underwear. When he showed up at 8:30 p.m. at the designated meeting spot, police officers attempted to handcuff him but were met with a struggle, the affidavit says. Guimaraes soon complied when police threatened to shock him with a Taser stun gun.

Many of the faithful west of Delray Beach who have heard Guimaraes give sermons in Portuguese, Spanish and English could not believe the accusations against him, with some suggesting the charges were trumped up.

"I can't believe it. Somebody's a liar," said Sandra Garcia, a technician at the small medical clinic on the mission property on West Atlantic Avenue. "He's so nice with the people. He cares about the people."

But experts suggest the arrest may be indicative of a more widespread problem of properly screening foreign priests.

Two lawyers who have successfully sued the Catholic Church in abuse cases said it is impossible to thoroughly screen priests who come to the United States from other countries, especially priests from religious orders.

"That is a big problem, because these orders operate worldwide," said Minnesota lawyer Jeffrey Anderson. "They transfer these guys all over the world, and there is no way to know their histories or their past or to screen them."

Dallas lawyer Sylvia Demarest said a shortage of Spanish-speaking priests in the United States has prompted church officials to recruit priests from South America to meet the needs of a growing Hispanic population.

"The only way the Catholic Church is growing in the United States is in the Hispanic population," she said. "They are desperate for Spanish-speaking priests."

Anyone with information that may be helpful in the Guimaraes investigation can call the Delray Beach Police Department at 561-243-7810.

Staff writers Tanya Weinberg, Noaki Schwartz and Diana Marrero contributed to this report.

Nicole Sterghos Brochu can be reached at nbrochu@sun-sentinel.com or 561-243-6603.

 
 

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