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  Top Catholics Called in Child-Porn Case Lawyer Says Figures Summoned to Grand Jury after Priest's Arrest

By Brooks Egerton
Dallas Morning News
March 16, 2005

Two prominent representatives of the Dallas Catholic Diocese appeared under subpoena before a grand jury Tuesday, one of the diocese's lawyers said.

Attorney Jim Burnham, who accompanied the two at the Dallas County criminal courthouse, said they were summoned simply because of last month's child-pornography arrest of a Grand Prairie pastor.

But courthouse sources and others said more may be at stake. They suggested that the secret proceeding, which lasted more than three hours, was part of the district attorney's broader criminal investigation of how area Catholic officials handle sexual misconduct allegations.

One of the subpoena targets - the Rev. Ramon Alvarez, the Dallas cathedral's head pastor - has no apparent connection to the Grand Prairie church where the Rev. Matthew Bagert was arrested.

Father Alvarez is, however, a longtime close associate of Father Bagert's, who is free on bail and suspended from duty. Police said the two were out of town together for about two days immediately before the arrest.

Father Bagert's attorney said Father Alvarez has come under legal scrutiny because of a report he received that his friend had ordered a videotape containing nude children. The attorney, former federal prosecutor Patrick McLain, said he did not believe the images were pornographic.

He said his client had collected legal, artistic materials that included nudity.

Mr. McLain said he would advise Father Bagert to plead not guilty if indicted and to prepare for trial. He said they have talked about "what, if anything, he could offer up" to the district attorney's broader investigation in exchange for possible leniency.

The attorney declined to elaborate. "It's way too premature," he said.

Other reasons that sources gave for believing that Tuesday's proceeding was part of the broader investigation:

*Prosecutors in a case such as Father Bagert's wouldn't ordinarily need witnesses from outside law enforcement or a lengthy hearing to secure an indictment.

*Mr. Burnham represents the diocese in the district attorney's broader investigation and is not involved in defending Father Bagert.

Also appearing at the grand jury were the Dallas Diocese's chancellor, Mary Edlund, who is one of Bishop Charles Grahmann's top aides; and the Rev. Jesus Belmontes, the associate pastor under Father Bagert in Grand Prairie.

Father Belmontes contacted Ms. Edlund earlier this year after seeing images of naked young boys on Father Bagert's office computer, according to criminal records. Ms. Edlund called police, who describe her and Father Belmontes as cooperative.

The district attorney's spokeswoman, Rachel Horton, said she couldn't comment on the grand jury's proceeding. She said the investigation is ongoing.

One new tool prosecutors are using is a Web site - www .victimpower.org - that allows people to report tips anonymously to authorities around the country. The program, unlike anonymous phone calls, provides for continuing communication that can be necessary to verify information.

Members of a Catholic family in Massachusetts started the site, saying they wanted to do something to combat abuse in their church. Dallas County District Attorney Bill Hill has embraced the idea, VictimPower legal adviser Stephen Galebach said.

"We've had about a half-dozen reports from the greater Dallas-Fort Worth area so far," Mr. Galebach said. He said that to protect the tipsters' identities and the integrity of investigations, he could not give details.

 
 

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