Texas: Roman Catholic priest faces child sexual abuse and trafficking charges

The Guardian [London, England]

February 21, 2024

By Ramon Antonio Vargas

Fernando Gonzalez Ortega’s arrest shows church has not uprooted all molesters despite reform calls, abuse victims and advocates say

A Roman Catholic priest near the US’s border with Mexico is facing criminal charges on allegations that he sexually molested a child, according to authorities.

Fernando Gonzalez Ortega’s arrest for sexually abusing a minor and of trafficking of persons demonstrates that US Catholic bishops have not yet rooted out all molesters under their command despite reform prompted by the worldwide church’s decades-old clergy molestation scandal, abuse victims and their advocates have argued.

Gonzalez, 52, had been serving as pastor of Saint Luke’s church in Brownsville, Texas, when he was named in an “allegation of sexual misconduct with a minor” that diocesan officials received, local bishop Daniel Flores said in a 13 February statement.

The complainant, who is now an adult but was underage at the time of the alleged molestation, came forward through the Brownsville diocese’s abuse victims’ assistance coordinator on 2 February, Flores said. Flores said he removed Gonzalez from active ministry a day later and “prohibited him from exercising any priestly ministry anywhere” while the victims’ coordinator encouraged the complainant to report his allegations to law enforcement.

Police then arrested Gonzalez on 13 February, booking him on accusations of continuous sexual abuse of a child, trafficking persons, and allowing a minor to participate in a sexual performance or engage in sexual conduct, local jail records show.

An attorney in Brownsville who is not involved in the case but spoke to the local television station KRGV as a legal expert said Gonzalez could get a maximum of life imprisonment if eventually convicted of continuous sexual abuse of a child.

Gonzalez remained in custody on Tuesday in lieu of a $600,000 bail. The local district attorney’s office said that conditions of Gonzalez being able to make bond included wearing a global positioning system tracker on his ankle, surrendering his passport and not leaving the community while the case against him is pending, as the Catholic News Agency reported.

Flores described himself as “deeply saddened” about the allegations centering on Gonzalez. “I … ask you to join me as I pray for the individual who came forward and the family, and all the parties affected, including parishioners and the clergy across our diocese who tend to their faithful with fidelity and compassion,” the bishop wrote in his statement.

Reactions to Gonzalez’s arrest were mixed among Catholic congregants in Brownsville. At least one woman told KRGV she intended to support Gonzalez because the allegations are “between him and God”. “Whatever it is, we have to stand behind him,” that parishioner said, according to KRGV.

On the other hand, another parishioner said to the station that more accountability beyond Gonzalez’s arrest was needed, remarking: “It’s bad, and these things shouldn’t be happening.”

The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests – or Snap, which is the US’s largest clergy molestation victims’ support group – wrote on X that Gonzalez’s arrest was the fourth so far of a Catholic cleric or employee on similar allegations in 2024.

In its statement, Snap alluded to how US bishops had enacted measures meant to protect minors and vulnerable adults from predatory priests and deacons after the Catholic archdiocese of Boston was exposed in 2002 as having covered up the widespread sexual abuse of children by its clergymen.

“First, the clergy abuse scandal is neither over nor a thing of the past, as Catholic officials are wont to say frequently,” Snap’s statement on X said. “Second, internal controls and policies do not do enough to prevent dangerous men from becoming clerics and cannot stop those men from abusing others with their newfound power.”

  • In the US, call or text the Childhelp abuse hotline on 800-422-4453 or visit their website for more resources and to report child abuse or DM for help. For adult survivors of child abuse, help is available at ascasupport.org. In the UK, the NSPCC offers support to children on 0800 1111, and adults concerned about a child on 0808 800 5000. The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac) offers support for adult survivors on 0808 801 0331. In Australia, children, young adults, parents and teachers can contact the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or Bravehearts on 1800 272 831, and adult survivors can contact Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657 380. Other sources of help can be found at Child Helplines International