Yakima Diocese Employee Faces Child Porn Charges in Oregon

Associated Press, carried in Seattle Post-Intelligencer
April 1, 2008

YAKIMA, Wash. -- The bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Yakima said Tuesday he regrets hiring a retreat director known to be under investigation of child pornography charges in Oregon, saying it "wasn't a good hire."

Juan Jose Gonzalez, 37, of Cowiche is being held on $80,000 bail at the Yakima County Jail on a fugitive warrant issued in Marion County, Ore. He faces four charges of encouraging child sex abuse, a felony, according to Yakima County Superior Court records.

Bishop Carlos Sevilla said he hired Gonzalez in 2003 to work part-time at the St. Peter Retreat Center in Cowiche because he viewed the incident as an "isolated episode," and because the job involved administrative work and teaching religious education to adults only, not children. Gonzalez was hired as full-time retreat director later that summer.

"It was a serious error in judgment on my part to employ Mr. Gonzalez while he was under investigation," Sevilla said in a statement. "I have always been and continue to be deeply committed to keeping the church a safe place. I should not have hired the employee, regret my serious failure in good judgment in doing so, and take full responsibility for my actions."

The charges mark the latest challenge for a diocese that already has paid about $1.25 million to resolve sexual abuse claims involving seven priests.

The allegations stem from when Gonzalez was a student at Mount Angel Seminary in Mount Angel, Ore. He was dismissed from the seminary in 2003, but Oregon authorities did not issue an arrest warrant until 2005.

Sevilla said he was not notified that Gonzalez had been charged, but he also said he did not follow up on the case after Gonzalez had been hired. Police and prosecutors in Oregon would not comment on the charges.

Gonzalez was arrested March 19 following a traffic stop in Tieton, west of Yakima. An extradition hearing has been set for April 22.

"My client shall prove his innocence to all criminal charges, and he shall provide specific facts in a court of law that establishes his truthfulness and his innocence," said J.J. Sandlin, attorney for Gonzalez.

Sandlin said Sevilla was well aware of his client's history at the seminary, including his client's allegations of sexual misconduct by priests providing theological instruction there. Sevilla also knew Gonzalez has had contact with Catholic youth at the Cowiche retreat for several years.

Sevilla said the diocese only recently learned that Gonzalez had been providing some religious instruction to youth. An outside investigator will be hired to determine if there are any allegations of inappropriate conduct.

Robert Fontana of Voice of the Faithful, a support group for church-abuse victims and priests and church members seeking changes in the diocese, said the latest case fits a pattern of secrecy surrounding the Yakima diocese.

Fontana served as director of evangelization for the diocese from 1991-2005, before resigning over complaints that the bishop was mishandling abuse and child pornography cases.

"His behavior has been consistent with keeping secrets until he gets caught," Fontana said. "I love the church, I love this diocese, but what the bishop said has not been his pattern. His pattern is to keep it a secret."

According to a statement from the diocese, Sevilla did not inform the pastors in the Cowiche parish about the allegations against Gonzalez. Sevilla also did not notify the diocese Lay Advisory Board, charged with advising the bishop about matters pertaining to the sexual abuse of minors.


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