Sins of Omission?
The Local Catholic Diocese Gets Accused of Covering up a '96 Sex Abuse Case
By Craig Malisow
Houston Press [Texas]
July 22, 2004
The bishop's letter to the victim begins with a harrowing apology: I want to express my profound apology for any sexual abuse you suffered from Juan Carlos Patino. Although Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of the Galveston-Houston Diocese wrote the letter last November, he was referring back to 1996. That's when, Fiorenza says in the letter, a 28-year-old seminarian molested a 15-year-old altar boy in the rectory of St. Francis de Sales Church.
In the letter, Fiorenza stresses that Patino-Arango "is not a priest and was not a priest at the time your parents reported the incident; he was a student for the priesthood, but as soon as the allegation was made by your parents, he was immediately dismissed from the seminary and he returned to Colombia, his native country."
Not so, says the victim's attorney, who has filed a lawsuit against Patino-Arango as well as Fiorenza and the Galveston-Houston Diocese. It accuses Fiorenza and the diocese of conspiring to cover up Patino-Arango's crimes and quietly shuttling him out of Houston.
"The co-conspirators facilitated Patino-Arango's flight from Texas; although they knew he was an important witness and potential target in Harris County," the suit states.
Another plaintiff is a second young man who says he was an eighth-grader who was also molested by Patino-Arango in the rectory in 1996. The seminarian made two other attempts to sexually assault him in the boy's home, according to the suit, but the boy avoided him by locking himself in his room.
A grand jury in May indicted Patino-Arango on a felony charge of indecency with a child.
Houston police issued a warrant for his arrest.
There's only one problem: No one knows where he is. In the case of the altar boy in 1996, both sides agree that his family quickly alerted their pastor at the time, Monsignor William Pickard.
Pickard notified the head of the seminary, Father Stephen Tiemann, and they met at the family's home to hear the full account. In dispute is what happened next.
The family "said that they did not want to make any kind of an allegation, but that if we wanted to report it, that they didn't have anything against reporting it," says the 74-year-old Pickard, now retired. "So that's what we did."
The diocese and Fiorenza's letter say that the allegation was reported to Children's Protective Services, which notified Houston police. They go on to claim that police contacted the victim's father about a week later.
"The father refused to allow his son to participate or cooperate in any criminal investigation," the diocese says in court documents responding to the suit. It states that CPS completed its investigation in June 1996.
The problem is, CPS wouldn't have investigated the matter in the first place, according to CPS spokesperson Estella Olguin. Since the agency's jurisdiction is limited to abuse of children by relatives or caretakers, CPS officials would have notified the diocese in writing that it would forward the complaint to the police -- not conduct its own investigation. The agency purges these "closed without assignment" reports after three years.
Diocese spokeswoman Annette Gonzales Taylor says diocese officials have documents that support their story; they just don't want to share them with the Houston Press.
"We feel like we've been forthcoming," she says. "If any proof is required, we'll certainly present that to a judge in a court of law. I believe that the feeling is that we just don't want to try this case in the media, basically."
Father Tiemann, who supposedly made the call to CPS, has the same attitude: "I don't feel like talking about it now."
The Galveston-Houston Diocese has not escaped the scandals that have rocked other church communities, and Bishop Fiorenza has found himself in the spotlight before.
Last January, the diocese released a study stating that 22 priests and four deacons had molested 46 juveniles since 1950. A Houston Chronicle analysis of the report stated that 80 percent of the abuse occurred before 1980, and that litigation, counseling and settlements cost the diocese $3.6 million.
"Even if it were just one person, I would be very sad," Fiorenza told the paper.
But in 1982, when Fiorenza was the bishop of the San Angelo Diocese, he accepted Father David Holley into his diocese, a priest with a long history of preying on boys in parishes across the country. Two years later, Fiorenza kicked Holley out, and the former priest was sentenced in 1993 to 275 years for previous sexual assaults on boys in a New Mexico diocese.
When the Galveston-Houston Diocese issued its report last January, Fiorenza says, it showed "we are making the best possible efforts to ensure that our parishes, schools and institutions are safe environments for children and young people."
Daniel Shea, the Houston attorney who sued on behalf of the families in the Patino-Arango case, is also no stranger to the Catholic church sex scandals. He's a Catholic theologian who left the church in disgust over the scandals. By the time he heard from the families in April, Shea had represented families in Massachusetts in at least six trials on molestation lawsuits against the church. He knew how predatory priests operated.
Shea became a major figure in the scandals two years ago when he helped unearth an old secret church document that many plaintiffs' attorneys believe to be Vatican instructions to priests on how to cover up sexual abuse.
"There had never been any criminal action initiated against Patino-Arango until the client got involved with me, and I insisted that they make a police report," Shea says.
He says the parents of the first altar boy don't recall ever being contacted by Houston police, and that the boy's father never said he would refuse to cooperate in a criminal investigation.
Moreover, Shea's suit accuses the diocese of allowing Patino-Arango to act as a deacon, even though he was not ordained as such. "By placing him at St. Francis, the Diocese and Fiorenza represented to the parish community that Patino-Arango was a celibate Catholic cleric and therefore sexually safe to all the children," the suit states.
Patino-Arango's last known address was in Tampa, Florida. The Catholic diocese there has no record of him enrolling in the seminary or holding another position in one of its churches.
According to Fiorenza's letter, Patino-Arango returned to Colombia after he was kicked out of the seminary. But if members of the diocese have any proof that he ever left the country, or that his hometown diocese was notified of his alleged crimes, they won't share it.
"We cooperated fully with the police investigation and continue to do so today," Taylor offers instead.
Shea asks, "Why was no criminal action ever initiated back then? That's what's puzzling about the sequence of events here."
Meanwhile, eight years after the sexual abuse, all the victims have is a letter of apology.
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