Tijuana Priest Banned in '80s Incident; Girl, 16, Allegedly Kissed against Will

By Sandra Dibble
San Diego Union-Tribune
July 20, 2002

TIJUANA -- The zero-tolerance policy adopted by U.S. bishops reached south of the border this week, when a Roman Catholic priest was removed from his ministerial duties over an incident that occurred while he worked in Alaska in the 1980s.

Bishop Michael W. Warfel of Juneau said yesterday that he followed the recommendation of a new sexual-misconduct review board approved by Roman Catholic bishops and banned the Rev. Javier Gutierrez Ramirez from working again as a priest. Gutierrez allegedly had kissed a 16-year-old girl against her wishes.

"I find it sad, but I think it's the right thing to do," the bishop said in an interview from Juneau.

Gutierrez, 50, was still working as pastor yesterday in eastern Tijuana at Nuestra Senora de Lourdes Roman Catholic Church. He said he had not learned of Warfel's decision, although he knew a review board was evaluating his case.

"I had hoped that since I went for rehab and because I left the United States, people would say, 'Well, he has paid enough for what he did,' " Gutierrez said. "I don't know what I am going to do."

Warfel said he sent Gutierrez a certified letter and an electronic message Thursday informing him of his removal, but he did not have direct contact with the priest. Warfel said he sent Tijuana's bishop, Rafael Romo Munoz, a fax and a certified letter Thursday as well.

The bishop was out of town yesterday, and could not be reached. Monsignor Salvador Diaz Mercado, vicar general of the Tijuana diocese, said he knew nothing of the case.

The sexual-abuse scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church in America has had a ripple effect across Mexico. But unlike U.S. bishops, who agreed last month in Dallas to immediately and permanently remove any priest or deacon who has sexually abused a minor, Mexico's bishops have taken no such stance.

In Tijuana, there is a pending court case involving a deacon accused of sexual impropriety with a teen-age boy. Gutierrez's case marks the first time in recent memory that allegations of sexual misconduct by a Catholic priest in Tijuana have come to public light.

"Removal of his faculties means that no other bishop may allow him to function as a priest," read a statement issued Thursday by the Juneau diocese. "Thus he may no longer exercise public ministry, wear clerical garb, or present himself publicly as a priest."

But Gutierrez is not automatically dismissed from the priesthood, the statement read. Under church law, certain steps must be followed before he loses his clerical status.

Gutierrez was ordained in 1983 for the Juneau diocese in his hometown in the central Mexican state of Jalisco and worked in Alaska through 1988. According to a statement released by the diocese, "records indicate several incidents of inappropriate sexual behavior involving minors occurred while he was serving as a priest in southeast Alaska."

Warfel said some of the allegations against Gutierrez were that he made inappropriate comments to some girls. Gutierrez denied any wrongdoing, and the allegations were dismissed.

A 16-year-old girl at a parish in Haines, Alaska, made the more serious accusation. "It came down to kissing the girl against her wishes," the bishop said.

According to notes taken by Warfel's predecessor, now deceased, Gutierrez "admitted he kissed her."

But Gutierrez said yesterday that he never kissed the girl. "There was a simple embrace, about five seconds," he said. "I am Mexican, and didn't understand the culture, and things that for us seem a little bit lighter, for Americans are very strict and different.

"I saw the seriousness and went to a psychologist to help me understand the culture."

But Warfel said the case was more serious than cultural misunderstanding. "I don't think so, and I've lived in Mexico, and I'm fairly familiar with (the) culture," he added.

Gutierrez left Alaska after the incident and was sent to a treatment center for troubled priests in Jemez Springs, N.M.

Warfel said that when the treatment was complete, his predecessor arranged with former Tijuana Bishop Emilio Berlie Belauzaran to send Gutierrez to Tijuana.

Warfel said that after the bishops' conference in Dallas, the diocese began reviewing old files, and the allegations against Gutierrez surfaced.

A nine-member advisory board of lay people unanimously decided Wednesday that Gutierrez should not be allowed to continue working as a priest.

Diaz, the vicar general for Tijuana's diocese, said he has received no complaints against Gutierrez since he began working in Tijuana. "He was with me here at the (Guadalupe) Cathedral, and he always fulfilled his duties as a priest," he said.


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