Fugitive Priest Still out of 'Reach'
Extradition Attempt or Request for Trial by Foreign Country Possible If Ochoa Is Found

By Guy Kovner
The Press Democrat [California]
July 1, 2006

Two months after identifying the Rev. Xavier Ochoa as a child-molest suspect and a week after issuing a warrant for his arrest, authorities still don't know the whereabouts of the Catholic priest who served in Sonoma County since 1988.

Investigators believe the fugitive priest, who left town in early May, is in Mexico, putting Ochoa "beyond our immediate reach," Sheriff's Sgt. Dennis O'Leary said.

Church officials said they, too, do not know where Ochoa is.

But detectives continue to work the case, trying to determine whether there are more than the three victims already identified, he said.

The 10 felony child sex abuse charges and one misdemeanor filed against Ochoa on June 23 were based on sexual misconduct allegations involving a 12-year-old boy in April and incidents years ago involving two males who are now adults.

"We are pedaling hard," Sheriff's Lt. Dave Edmonds said. "It's an important case."

But Edmonds said that releasing too much information could jeopardize the investigation.

Ochoa is the 17th Santa Rosa Diocese priest to be linked to child sexual abuse cases. Only three have been prosecuted.

Gary Timmons served four years in prison and was released in 2000. Don Kimball's conviction was erased in 2003 by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that California could not prosecute decades-old child sex abuse cases.

The diocese has settled lawsuits and made other payments to victims totalling nearly $20.million since 1990.

Ochoa, 69, who most recently served as assistant pastor at St. Francis Solano Church in Sonoma, is not the first Catholic priest from the diocese to flee to Mexico.

Austin Peter Keegan moved there after he was fired by former Bishop Mark Hurley in 1982. In 2002, Keegan was living in Oceanside when he was indicted and subsequently fled to Mexico.

In 2003 he was arrested in Puerto Vallarta, where he had been working at an orphanage, and returned to San Francisco for trial on 75 counts of molesting three Sonoma County children. Keegan was released by the same court ruling that freed Kimball.

Authorities have two options for pursuing a case against a suspect who has fled the country, Edmonds said. They can attempt to extradite the suspect for trial here or ask officials in the foreign nation to undertake the prosecution. In either case, the suspect first must be located.

Santa Rosa police said the second alternative paid off when a man accused in a May 2001 stabbing death was convicted by a Mexican judge and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Church officials said they have no information on Ochoa's status or location, other than two telephone calls from him in early May.

Ochoa, who was ordained as a Jesuit priest in Mexico in 1969, allegedly admitted sexual misconduct with the 12-year-old boy during a meeting with Santa Rosa Bishop Daniel Walsh and two other priests April 28. That meeting was triggered by a conversation Ochoa had the previous day with a clergy member.

Walsh immediately removed Ochoa from all clerical duties, but the church did not forward the abuse allegations to authorities until May 1.

State law requires clergy to report suspected child abuse immediately. Walsh said in a letter to parishioners last weekend that he had "acted in good faith and ... with reasonable speed to notify authorities."

By the time detectives went to Ochoa's apartment in Sonoma he had stored his belongings and left town.

Ochoa called a priest May 3 and said he was in San Diego. The next day he left a message on another priest's phone saying he was in a Tijuana hospital.

Walsh went to Rome this week for a Vatican celebration of new San Francisco Archbishop George H. Niederauer's appointment to his post. Walsh is expected to take his traditional monthlong vacation in July, said Deirdre Frontczak, the bishop's spokeswoman.

The diocese's victim assistance coordinator, Julie Sparacio, has contacted the 12-year-old boy's family, Frontczak said. The family is "distraught," she said, because the boy's identity has become known in some circles.

The two adult victims have not contacted the church nor asked for assistance, Frontczak said.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.