Church officials twice warned about priest who allegedly assaulted 11-year-old, prosecutors say

The State [Columbia SC]

March 21, 2023

By Ted Clifford

Parishioners twice went to church officials with concerns about about a South Carolina priest’s behavior years before before he allegedly groomed and sexually assaulted an 11-year-old boy, including on overnight visits at his home and on a trip to Panama City, Florida, according to federal prosecutors.

Father Jaime Adolfo Gonzalez-Farias, 68, allegedly plied his victim with gifts. He gave him a tablet and a phone, and sent the boy intimate messages, calling him Cricket and himself Mr. Wildfire, according to prosecutors. He also warned the child that something bad would happen if he told his parents about their relationship.

The allegations were made against Gonzalez-Farias, formerly a priest at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston, at a detention hearing in the federal courthouse in Columbia on Friday. It was the first time those details emerged since the indictment was unsealed following Gonzalez-Farias’s arrest on Nov. 29, 2022.

“He used his position of trust and authority to groom, recruit and assault children,” said Assistant United States Attorney Elliott Daniels, who described Gonzalez-Farias, a dual citizen of the United States and Chile, as an “extraordinary flight risk” and an ongoing danger to the community.

Magistrate Judge Paige Gossett denied Gonzalez-Farias’ motion to change the status of his detention, meaning that he will remain in jail.

In particular, she found that the the priest, whose phones allegedly contained an image that could be child pornography and pictures of unsuspecting boys taken at the airport shortly before his arrest, was an ongoing danger to the community. He continued to seek employment at different churches after the Diocese of Charleston terminated his employment in 2020.

Gonzalez-Farias is charged with aggravated sexual abuse of children, coercion of a minor and transportation of a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity. If convicted on all charges, he faces a minimum of 50 years in prison.

The priest, who appeared in court in an orange jumpsuit, handcuffed and shackled at the waist and ankles, is accused of performing a sex act in front of his victim, showing him pornography and forcing him to get into a bathtub with him naked, according to Daniels.

Federal Public Defender Jenny Smith argued that Gonzalez-Farias, known as “Father Gonzalez,” was an elderly man with no prior criminal history who retained the support of his parish. The behavior he was accused of represented an “isolated incident” and Gonzalez-Farias retained the presumption of innocence, Smith said. She asked Gosset to grant bond and to order other restrictions including GPS monitoring.

“Father Gonzalez is beloved at Blessed Trinity,” a Greer church he ministered, Smith said. A church deacon, who was present in court, was even willing to let Gonzalez-Farias stay with him, according to Smith.

Presenting letters bearing 25 signatures from members of his former congregation, Smith argued that many of Gonzalez-Farias’ parishioners stood behind their priest.

Reviewing the letters, Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Major accused of Gonzalez-Farias of “using their religion, their faith, something that’s very sacred to people.” In reality, they “show his level of manipulation,” Major said.

Since 2015, Gonzalez-Farias ministered at parishes and ministries around South Carolina. Among them were churches in Greer, Newberry, Laurens and Joanna. His defense attorney also emphasized that there were no allegations of similar behavior in any of his other ministries in New Jersey, Florida or South Carolina.

But church officials had received two warnings about Gonzalez-Farias’s behavior, according to prosecutors. In 2017, a parishioner allegedly sent a picture of Gonzalez-Farias taking a young boy with him on a trip to Walmart, Daniels said. The following year, a woman expressed concern to church officials over Gonzalez-Farias’ relationship with her nephews, aged 10 and 12. In particular, she said that she was concerned by the attention Gonzalez-Farias showed the 10-year-old “behind closed doors,” according to Daniels.

“We cannot comment on the criminal proceedings; however, we are fully cooperating with authorities in the investigation,” a representative of the Diocese of Charleston told The State Media Co.

By 2020, Gonzalez-Farias was allegedly regularly texting with the 11-year-old boy he called Cricket, according to Daniels. His texts often struck a romantic tone, Daniels said, as he invited the child to meals and to spend time at his home.

“You must be good in your classes so your parents will give you a big yes,” Gonzalez-Farias allegedly wrote, encouraging the boy to behave so that his parents would let him spend time with the priest. “Let us dream that we are together in our house, you with your hot chocolate and tostada.”

“You are a blessing to me,” Gonzalez-Farias wrote. In addition to the nicknames, calling the boy “Cricket” and himself “Mr. Wildfire,” he would often sign off his texts to the victim with, “love you galaxies.”

Following his arrest, in a sign of his “willingness to cooperate,” according to Smith, Gonzalez-Farias ultimately admitted to investigators that he had touched his victim’s genitals under his clothes, among other sexual acts.

On Nov. 9, 2020, Gonzalez-Farias took the victim on a three-day trip to Panama City, Florida, which was confirmed with hotel reservation records and cell phone location data. While there, he allegedly molested the victim a second time, Daniels said. Gonzalez-Farias was terminated from his position with the Diocese of Charleston on Nov. 23, 2020, after the victim’s brother complained to church authorities.

The victim later said during a forensic interview with child sexual assault specialists that he’d been abused, according to Daniels.

Just days before he was terminated, Gonzalez-Farias allegedly texted the victim encouraging him not to worry and to “enjoy this beautiful day,” according to Daniels.

”Soon I will be in my beautiful country,” Gonzalez-Farias allegedly wrote before asking, “Is anybody in the church accusing us of something?”

The texts, sent primarily on the messaging service WhatsApp, were discovered after FBI agents who imaged the four phones that Gonzalez-Farias had on him when he was arrested after arriving at Miami International Airport from Chile. On his phone, investigators also found pictures of unknown young males that he appeared to have taken without their knowledge on the plane and in the airport. There was also at least one image that Daniels said could be child porn and evidence of visits to pornography sites that appeared to feature young men.

“It is awkward because we’re talking about a priest, but it is not illegal to view pornography,” Smith said.

Smith objected to the texts, which were read in court by FBI Special Agent Jacquelyn Hamelryck, having any weight in the judge’s decision. She argued that analysis was not complete and the agent who had actually performed the analysis and reviewed the texts was not present.

After being terminated, Gonzalez-Farias signed a document saying that he would no longer wear a priest’s outfit, perform any Catholic rituals or associate with anyone under the age of 18. Despite this, he continued to seek positions at other churches, including one in Maine, Daniels said.

But Gonzalez-Farias withdrew from consideration for the job in Maine, Smith said, arguing that he was an elderly man who simply wanted to retire and “get his affairs in order.”

Gonzalez-Farias will remain in custody at the Barnwell County Detention Center following Gosset’s ruling.