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  Troubled Parish Hit by Priest's Confession

By Eileen E. Flynn
Austin American-Statesman (Texas)
September 8, 2004

A longtime community activist and high-ranking Catholic priest, the Rev. Lonnie Reyes, acknowledged having sexual relations with an underage girl in the 1970s and has resigned from the ministry, Austin Bishop Gregory Aymond announced Tuesday evening to parishioners of St. Julia's Church, which Reyes had pastored since 1986.

Diocesan officials said a San Antonio woman recently reported having a sexual relationship with Reyes when she was younger than 18, the legal age for consent. The diocese is also investigating the possibility that there are two more victims.

"In his weakness, Father Reyes was unfaithful to his commitment to chastity," Aymond told parishioners. "He is greatly embarrassed and repentant of his actions and the pain it will cause you."

Reyes, 62, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Many who know him praised the priest as the ultimate example of Christian leadership.

But during their meeting with the bishop Tuesday, St. Julia's members painted a picture of a parish in turmoil.

Suspected financial mishandlings and division have recently plagued the congregation, problems that Aymond pledged to help resolve with diocesan leaders and the parish administrator or the intermediate pastor, the Rev. John Boiko.

Parishioners of the predominantly Hispanic church at 900 Tillery St. said the announcement of Reyes' misdeeds compounded the other troubles.

"I was 5 years old when this church was built," said Mary Sustaita. "Yeah, I feel betrayed."

Reyes, a Lockhart native and former migrant worker, began his career as a priest in 1969 and quickly became known as an outspoken advocate for Mexican Americans and immigrant rights. He marched with farm workers in South Texas and took part in Austin labor strikes.

In the 1970s, he served as special assistant in Mexican American affairs to former Austin Bishop Vincent Harris and held a position on the city's Civil Service Commission, which oversaw compliance with state laws for police and firefighters. Reyes also headed a task force in the 1980s that helped illegal immigrants report crimes to police without fear of deportation.

He earned the title of monsignor and served as chancellor, one of the highest positions a priest can hold in the diocese.

That Reyes' career would end in public shame is heartbreaking for former Austin Mayor Gus Garcia.

"He's been there for the people, and he's always been committed to the principles of Christianity and of the Catholic Church," said Garcia, a friend of Reyes for 30 years. "In the tradition of the way the Army talks, he's been a true soldier. It seems to me that he ought to get better treatment from his bosses than to have 30 years of service and to get kicked out because when he was a young man he made what they considered to be a mistake."

The diocese's ethics policy, put in place before the sex abuse scandal rocked the American church two years ago, requires the bishop to notify authorities of abuse. In some dioceses, priests repeatedly molested children as bishops moved them from parish to parish.

When the extent of the abuse came to light in 2002, U.S. bishops responded by drafting a charter that mandates the removal from ministry of any priest who admits to or is found guilty of sex abuse of a minor, regardless of when the incident took place.

Aymond informed San Antonio police of the allegations. But because the statute of limitations has expired, the likelihood that Reyes will face charges is slim, said Catherine Babbitt, division chief of family justice and victim protection for the Bexar County district attorney.

Reyes is still the responsibility of the diocese and will be monitored, officials said, though they declined to say where Reyes will live. He has lived at the rectory at St. Julia's. He will receive his pension but can no longer function in any capacity as a priest. The victim will receive money from the diocese for counseling.

Aymond said that the relationship between Reyes and the victim lasted at least several months while he served as an administrator for the diocese and that there were other "inappropriate" relationships between Reyes and adult women and possibly other minors.

Even if underage girls interacted with Reyes willingly, Aymond added, "When any minor is involved in a sexual relationship with an adult, there is always manipulation."

He said the victim came forward last month because "she felt she had to . . . protect other children."

The Austin Diocese has held many educational seminars on how to handle sexual abuse and conducts background checks of all clergy, staff and volunteers.

Jose Limon, director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas, said Reyes' departure will have a "real disheartening impact" on Mexican Americans in Austin.

The news brings a sense of loss to the broader community as well, some said, because Reyes won admiration across racial and denominational lines.

The Rev. Dawn Enderwood, now a pastor at Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Edmond, Okla., worked with Reyes while she was a seminarian in Austin in the late 1990s. She was struck by Reyes' small acts of kindness.

"(At) church dinners, all of the old (people) left with something, if it was a head of lettuce or a loaf of bread or a bag of cookies," she said. "Nobody ever left empty-handed. It was such a generous ministry."

Aymond said he has found no evidence that Reyes has abused minors while at St. Julia's, but he urged people with information about this or other cases of abuse to call 476-4888 or submit a "Notice of Concern" on the diocesan Web site, www.austindiocese.org.

CORRECTION-DATE: September 9, 2004

CORRECTION:

* On Tuesday's Page One, a story about the Rev. Lonnie Reyes, former pastor of St. Julia's Catholic Church, resigning from the ministry after acknowledging a past sexual relationship with an underage girl incorrectly stated the age of consent in Texas. It is 17.

 
 

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