Criminal Charges Dropped against Priest; Civil Lawsuit Still Pending against Church

By Shanna Sissom
May 4, 2003

BIG LAKE, TEXAS (MRT) - Criminal charges against former Big Lake priest Miguel Esquivel have been dropped as a civil lawsuit against the San Angelo Diocese is pending, Bishop Michael Pfeifer has confirmed.

Pfeifer removed Esquivel from ministry upon learning of allegations last year that the priest sexually abused a girl back in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"The criminal charges were dropped because of the statute of limitations," Pfeifer explained.

Pfeifer said he was sad that the girl, now a young woman, had not reported the allegations when she was younger.

When the allegations first surfaced, Reagan County authorities charged Esquivel with two counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child, two counts of indecency with a child and four counts of sexual assault on a child.

The girl was under the age of 14 during at least some of the alleged incidents, the charges claimed, and some of the acts took place inside a Big Lake church.

Pfeifer had Esquivel placed at a treatment center for help and evaluation, but the priest failed to comply with the evaluation.

"He broke off dialogue with me," Pfeifer recalled and said he did not know where the former priest is now.

"But, he has been removed from ministry."

Meanwhile, Pfeifer - as head of the Roman Catholic Diocese in which Esquivel served - is a defendant in a civil lawsuit still pending, as is the diocese itself.

Since that time, the diocese has seen no new allegations of abuse.

"There have been no cases that have come to light," Pfeifer said.

And while Pfeifer said his office has received some "complaints," none have been against priests or employees.

"I'll suspect there'll always be some complaints, but we've had no complaints against any priest or any employee."

Almost a year ago, Pfeifer met with other bishops across the nation to discuss the scandal of church cover-ups of abusive priests and how best to protect children.

After the meeting, Pfeifer returned home and immediately developed a comprehensive plan of action for his 29-county diocese.

This week, all Catholic employees and church volunteers will be subjected to criminal background checks.

"I as a bishop will also have a background check on me. Everyone, from the bishop on down, will be checked," he said.

People who have had prior arrests unrelated to child sexual abuse will be viewed individually.

"If someone was arrested for smoking pot a long time ago, or a DUI or DWI, maybe someone was an alcoholic and got treatment, that would be different," the bishop said.

"We have to be understanding and forgiving," Pfeifer added.

But when it comes to child sexual abuse, Pfeifer said evidence shows people don't change.

"That is a behavior that, sadly, doesn't change."

West Texas parishioners, particularly those in Midland, have continually exhibited deep loyalty to their priests and expressed concern about protecting their clergymen from false allegations during town meetings called by the bishop.

"I think, in general, people are very satisfied about what has been put in place," Pfeifer said.

As for the scars suffered by the church in wake of the scandals nationwide, Pfeifer said it has not been easy.

"We've come out in a humbled way, we had to face a lot of hard truth," he said. "We've had to rebuild trust, and I think we have by being open and honest."

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