Lawsuit targets Diocese of Brownsville on sexual assault allegations

The Brownsville Herald [Brownsville TX]

October 17, 2021

By Laura B. Martinez

A civil lawsuit filed against the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville that alleges church officials tried to protect a priest accused in the alleged sexual assault of two siblings continues to make its way through the legal system.

The lawsuit was filed nearly two months after the Diocese released a list containing the names of 12 priests accused of sexually assaulting children. The accused priest, Father Benedicto Ortiz, was one of the 12 named in the list released by the diocese in 2019.

According to the diocese, Ortiz died in 2011.

The lawsuit filed March 26, 2019 in Cameron County alleges that in 1982 Ortiz was a priest at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Brownsville, where the individuals – referred to as L.C. and D.S. – attended church. They were between the ages of 10 and 13 at the time Ortiz began to assault them, the lawsuit alleges.

According to the lawsuit, the assaults started when L.C. and D.S. would spend the night with Ortiz and continued when he moved them into the rectory with him. Ortiz is accused of sexually abusing L.C. and D.S from about 1982 to 1985 by exposing himself to the children.

The lawsuit states the priest required “them to be naked in his presence, fondling them, requiring them to touch him, and engaging in oral sex, providing Plaintiffs with drugs and alcohol, playing pornographic videos, and masturbating in front of them.” Ortiz also took the children on trips with him to South Padre Island where the alleged abuse continued, the lawsuit states.

According to the lawsuit, the bishop at that time, Bishop John Fitzpatrick, knew the siblings were living in the rectory with Ortiz.

The Diocese issued a statement on Oct. 5 responding to a request for comment on the lawsuit stating, “The lawsuit against the Diocese of Brownsville was filed by two plaintiffs who claim misconduct by the priest in the early 1980s. The accused priest has been deceased since 2011. The lawsuit was filed in 2019 and has been proceeding through the court system since then, with delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other procedural reasons. We have always taken and continue to take these allegations seriously.

“In addition to the allegations of misconduct in the 1980s, one of the two plaintiffs is making claims that involve ministry services she requested from the diocese in 2018. In this matter, it is the diocese’s position that it is improper to bring claims in civil courts that require decisions on matters involving Church doctrine, practice, and canon law. Last week (Sept. 29) the court approved a motion to separate the claims of the two plaintiffs, thereby allowing the Diocese to more properly address and evaluate the merits of each plaintiff’s lawsuit.”

The statement continued: “We express our profound sorrow on behalf of the Church for any victim, and we remain firm in our commitment to take care of those who are most vulnerable in our midst. Our Victims Assistance Coordinator stands ready to assist anyone who at any time brings an allegation of abuse forward.”

Judge Gloria Rincones, of the 445th state District Court, held a motion hearing Sept. 29 via Zoom, where she addressed a motion to sever filing. She heard testimony from the attorneys representing the alleged victims, who stated the cases are intertwined and should be tried as one case. However, she denied their motion and ordered that the lawsuit be severed, meaning each victim has to file a separate suit against the Diocese.

Also addressed in the motion hearing were motions to reconsider order to produce privilege communication and word product and a motion for summary judgment on first amended protection of religious practices. Rincones did not make a ruling on the motion but instead chose to take it under advisement.

During the hearing, Rincones heard allegations by the attorneys representing the plaintiffs that the Church had used exorcism on one of the alleged victims. They were trying to get copies of all the documentations that discussed what took place during the “exorcism.”

Attorney Darren Wolf said D.S. went to the Catholic Church seeking help. He said she met with the bishop and talked to him about the abuse. They decided to do exorcisms on the child, he said during the hearing.

“When the priests and the lay people that are doing these exorcisms and laying their hands on our client, are telling the priest that molested this family to leave her body….that they have convinced our client that this priest is in her body and she is revealing sexual abuse during the exorcisms regarding her, her sister and her brother,” Wolf said at the hearing.

“The church has instructed our client that the spirit, the demoniac spirit that molested her, her sister and her brother and at least one other person is inside her body and she literally had a mental breakdown over this,” he said in the hearing.

“We have never seen anything that is so outrageous…They convinced her…she still believes this priest is inside her body…Many of these people, including our client take these exorcisms and the church at the word when they tell them this,” Wolf told the virtual courtroom.

Minerva Zamora, the attorney representing the Diocese, said in the hearing an exorcism was never performed on D.S. and that she only received a blessing when she went to the church for help.

D.S. approached the Church in 2018 but didn’t say she was abused, Zamora said.

“She denied sexual abuse and she requested an actual exorcism,” Zamora said. “It was denied to her because she refused to undergo a psychological evaluation that the church requires before moving forward.”

“She received blessings similar to the laying of hands … these blessings were at her request and they were to rid her of any demoniac spirit that may possess her. This is the church belief. An exorcism was never performed on her, as plaintiff’s counsel would lead to you believe,” Zamora said.

In court filings, the Diocese said: “No exorcisms ever took place. Further, not only is the Deliverance Ministry subject to a Confidentially Agreement, it is also ecclesiastical in nature and protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

According to the lawsuit, the youths first started to spend the night with Ortiz and he later moved them into the rectory with him. The children would visit their mother twice a week and the mother was grateful “believing that they were in a safe environment … the mother relied on the Diocese to provide a safe and nurturing environment for her children, to protect them from abuse and harm, and to keep them from being exposed,” the suit states.

“The Diocese failed to protect the children from Ortiz,” the lawsuit claims.

On Jan. 31, 2019, the diocese released Ortiz’s name along with the names of 11 other priests accused of sexually assaulting children. Many of the priests worked at parishes throughout at least 24 Rio Grande Valley cities. Six of the priests whose names were released have since died, including Ortiz, who died in 2011 at the age of 80. He was ordained a priest in 1957 in Puerto Rico.

The lawsuit states then Bishop Fitzpatrick knew L.C. and D.S. were living with Ortiz and that he transferred the priest from Our Lady of Guadalupe Church to St. Anne Mother of Mary in Pharr. L.C. and D.S. moved with Ortiz where the alleged assault continued, the lawsuit alleges. L.C. and D.S. lived with Ortiz for about three years until Fitzpatrick ordered Ortiz to not have any contact with them, according to the lawsuit.

The diocese has requested a motion for summary judgment be ruled in the case because the dioceses argues that statute of limitations has run out. This would have ended the case before it went to trial. Ricones denied the diocese’s motion.
In its response to the lawsuit, the diocese stated that because the plaintiffs know that the statute of limitations has run out, they are attempting to “salvage their claims by shifting their claims from sexual abuse to a theory of institutional cover up. This attempt is disingenuous because Plaintiffs have always based their lawsuit on the abuse they allegedly suffered at the hands of Benedicto Ortiz.”

Rincones anticipates the cases will go to trial in early 2022. The siblings are seeking exemplary damages.

For years, the Catholic Church has been scrutinized for relocating abusive priests from their assigned churches to other locations, instead of cooperating with law enforcement and removing the accused from the clergy altogether.

Texas Catholic bishops made the decision to release names of clergy members “credibly accused” of sexually assaulting minors in October 2018, two months after a Pennsylvania grand jury uncovered rampant sexual abuse by priests who molested more than 1,000 children since the 1940s.