Trust -- the Unsettling Saga of a Suspicious Deacon

By Jane Gargas
Yakima Herald Republic
January 7, 2007

Editor's note: Although the Yakima Herald-Republic routinely withholds the names of people suspected of crimes unless they are formally charged, Aarón Ramírez is identified here because his name has been published in public documents. On a balmy summer night seven years ago, a 35-year-old man studying to be a Catholic priest invited a 17-year-old boy to spend the evening with him in a trailer on the grounds of Resurrection Catholic Church in Zillah.

The aspiring priest, officially known as a deacon, gave the teen two bottles of Budweiser and a bottle of wine, according to a police report. When those bottles were empty, the deacon, who was drinking very little, brought over more wine from the church.

Nauseous, the teen passed out on the porch of the trailer. According to his account, he said he woke up several hours later, with no clothes on, lying next to the deacon, also naked, in bed.

Thus begins a distressing saga covering two countries and two religious denominations, and not resolving -- if it ever resolves -- until a little over a month ago.

"This case was very frustrating," lamented Zillah police Chief Dave Simmons.

The deacon, Aarón Ramírez, was a rising star in the Catholic community when he visited Zillah in July 1999 from another parish in the Catholic Diocese of Yakima.

But what happened during one critical night of his visit has had profound consequences for several people and churches.

The teenager reported the evening's incident to the police the next day but said he couldn't remember what had happened. He was unable to make an official statement due to his "significant emotional state," according to the police report.

The police never obtained a complete statement, nor were charges ever filed.

"We felt likely that (molestation) might have occurred, but the victim didn't want to discuss it," Simmons said during an interview last month.

"Sometimes victims think they were the ones who did something wrong, especially when the suspect is someone in a supervisory role, like teachers, ministers or police," Simmons explained.

Shortly after the incident, Yakima diocesan officials told Ramírez, who had returned to his assigned parish, that they were sending a car the next day to bring him back for police questioning.

But when the driver arrived, Ramírez had vanished.

And since the teen wouldn't press charges, there was no immediate case.

The matter remained in limbo until several years ago, when Dallas newspaper reporters were researching a story about Catholic clerics who turn up working in churches in other countries after allegations of abuse have been made against them.

The reporters found that Ramírez was serving as an Episcopal priest in two parishes outside Mexico City.

"He became an Episcopal priest a year after the Zillah incident," Reese Dunklin, a reporter with The Dallas Morning News, said in a recent telephone interview.

About 18 months ago, the local Voice of the Faithful, a group advocating reforms in the Catholic Church, was alerted that the missing Ramírez -- who had been in Mexico for six years by then -- had been named in the Dallas newspaper.

VOTF coordinator Robert Fontana wrote a letter to Yakima Bishop Carlos Sevilla in June 2005, asking if the Episcopal Bishop of Mexico City had ever been notified of the Zillah incident.

He also wrote to the Diocesan Lay Advisory Board, asking that the Mexico bishop be fully informed about Ramírez.

At the time, Fontana was working as diocesan director of evangelism; he left his job in 2005 and subsequently sued the diocese, saying he had been reprimanded for questioning how the diocese was implementing its policy of protecting children from abuse. His lawsuit was dismissed in Superior Court last May but is under appeal.

Sevilla wrote back to Fontana, saying that he had never "received an inquiry about Aarón from the Episcopal diocese."

Sevilla mentioned in his reply to Fontana that Ramírez had admitted (to Yakima church officials) that he had sexually molested the Zillah teenager.

In early July 2005, Sevilla wrote to Carlos Touché-Porter, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Mexico.

"In August 1999 Father Ramírez sexually abused a young 17-year-old at one of my parishes. He decided to leave the country immediately," he wrote.

Touché-Porter replied, "It worries me what you have said about Father Aarón Ramírez. I ask that you please send me any type of documentation that you have, and I also ask that you notify me if the case was denounced to the police."

The two letters have been translated from Spanish.

Sevilla responded, reiterating the information in the original letter, accord to Touché-Porter, but including no documentation.

When contacted last month about the incident and other diocesan matters, Sevilla declined to comment.

After the correspondence, Touché-Porter questioned Ramírez about the Zillah incident, and Ramírez -- by then an ordained Episcopalian priest -- denied any culpability.

Touché-Porter later explained, in an e-mail to the Yakima Herald-Republic, that he hadn't taken Sevilla seriously when there was no documentation forthcoming.

"Our experience with the Roman Catholic Church concerning clergy who transfer to our church has not been positive," Touché-Porter e-mailed. "We either get misleading information or total silence."

The e-mail continued, "I do not know Bishop Sevilla at all and I did not know whether the information was reliable or not. I am not accusing him of anything. I am just saying that in my judgment, what he sent was not what we require in order to take action."

So no action was taken.

It was limbo again; Ramírez continued his Episcopal priesthood, the police had no case and the diocese here felt it had done what it could.

But the case still nagged at Fontana. He recoiled at the image of a man, who had admitted molesting a minor, still working in the clergy.

Stressing that he wasn't on a witch hunt to find errant clerics, Fontana said his overarching interest has been to change a system that he thinks protects priests more than children.

Finally, Fontana decided to take steps on his own. On Oct. 5, 2006, he wrote to Touché-Porter and asked if he knew that a priest in his diocese had molested a boy in Washington state.

Touché-Porter answered Fontana the same way he had Sevilla: Please send documentation.

Fontana did; he mailed a copy of the police report.

By the end of that month, after convening the governing committee of his diocese and presenting the police document, Touché-Porter permanently suspended the man from the priesthood.

Fontana believes that most people would do exactly what he did if they felt children might be in danger. It saddens him that the diocese here didn't respond more strongly.

"There's been a pattern that this diocese doesn't act to protect children," Fontana said.

"There's a hierarchical system in the Catholic Church," he added, "that keeps them from aggressively pursuing the truth."

Russ Mazzola of the Diocesan Lay Advisory Board takes exception to that.

"If a fellow bishop, even of another faith, wrote and told you about (a molestation incident), why was that not enough?"

In Touché-Porter's view, it wasn't enough because "an important part of our zero-tolerance policy is not to proceed without ample and satisfactory written and/or personal evidence."

Teresa Kettelkamp, executive director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection in Washington, D.C., believes the stalemate could have been averted. Her office was created by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to oversee adherence to church sexual abuse policies after a clergy scandal erupted in Boston in 2002.

While commenting that she didn't know details of Ramírez' case, Kettelkamp said that it could have been helpful for the Yakima bishop to direct the Mexico bishop to Zillah police for documentation.

"The question we have to ask is if we have done everything we can to preclude future victims," she said.

She added, "If you keep your eye on the goal of protecting children, all decisions that have to be made will be clear."

To Fontana, the diocesan eye has veered off target.

"The bishop does the very minimum, and in the case of Ramírez, he didn't even do that," he said.

However, Zillah's Chief Simmons emphasized that the diocese cooperated with his agency.

"At the time, the Catholic Church did everything it could to help with the investigation," he said.

But Simmons noted that he still feels disquieted whenever a child molestation case isn't resolved, an uneasiness that Kettelkamp shares.

"I'm always concerned in a case like (that)," Kettelkamp said. "You worry that there will be more victims when the perpetrator isn't removed from a supervisory role."

But Ramírez has been, and Touché-Porter has mounted an investigation to see if there were any molestation incidents in Mexico related to the man.

Noting that Ramírez will not be allowed to function as a priest in Mexico or anywhere else in the worldwide Anglican Communion, Touché-Porter said, "This has been a very painful situation for us."


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