Sevilla's Had Little to Say

Yakima Herald-Republic
April 2, 2008

YAKIMA -- Tuesday's news conference comes just over a year after the Most Rev. Carlos Sevilla, bishop of the Diocese of Yakima, declined to speak to the Yakima Herald-Republic for a story about an investigation involving a former diocesan priest.

In January 2007, Sevilla said through a spokesman that he "does not have any comment because he doesn't have confidence in the Yakima Herald."

In recent years, Sevilla has been difficult to reach for comment. He has issued prepared statements to the news media. And he has also issued "no comment" statements through spokespersons.

In the January 2007 matter, a Herald-Republic reporter was seeking comment about the Rev. Darell Mitchell, a Catholic priest who was investigated in Yakima on suspicion that he viewed child pornography. He had recently resigned from the Archdiocese of St. Louis, where he had been assigned to a parish that has an elementary school.

Mitchell left Yakima in 2004 while under criminal investigation for having photos of nude boys on his computer. About a dozen photos of boys, elementary school-age to teens, were turned over to police by the diocese.

The FBI and police investigated, but no charges were filed.

The Archdiocese of St. Louis maintained Sevilla had certified "without qualification that there is nothing in Father Mitchell's background or service that would raise questions about his fitness for ministry."

But Sevilla wouldn't talk about the situation with the Herald-Republic concerning several stories that were published before and after the priest had resigned from the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

Now, 14 months later, what's changed?

For one, the Rev. Robert Siler has come on board, joining the Diocese of Yakima in August to handle -- among other things -- media relations. Siler, chief of staff for Sevilla and a former newspaper reporter, worked Tuesday to notify newspaper editors and television news directors of that day's news conference.

In recent months, he also helped to arrange for Sevilla to meet with Herald-Republic editors and a reporter to discuss coverage and story ideas.

And in January, he helped to get the word out about the Diocese of Yakima passing a recent audit of its sexual abuse policy.

Audits were established at Catholic dioceses throughout the country after allegations of sexual abuse by priests became a national scandal in 2002.

The Diocese of Yakima hasn't been immune to allegations. So far, the diocese has paid out about $1.25 million to resolve sexual abuse claims involving seven priests.

In addition to the Mitchell's case, the local Voice Of The Faithful group has questioned the handling of several incidents in the Yakima Diocese, including one in 2002 and another in 2004. VOTF is a Catholic group that advocates reforms in the church and supports survivors of clergy sexual abuse.

The first case, in a parish near Wenatchee, concerned a volunteer who oversaw the altar server program, involving children. The man told a church official he had sexually fondled two girls on several occasions.

None of the incidents occurred in the church, and the girls weren't altar servers at the time. The official took the volunteer to police, but the girls' families declined to press the case and the man wasn't criminally charged.

The second case took place in Sunnyside. A priest abruptly moved away, and diocesan officials told the parish he'd left to "work on important personal issues."

Allegations against the Yakima Diocese don't stop there.

Eight years ago, a man studying to become a Catholic priest allegedly 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, who was serving as a deacon, gave the teen alcohol, according to a police report. The teen passed out on the porch of the trailer. According to his account, he woke up several hours later, with no clothes on, lying next to the deacon, also naked, in bed.

The deacon, Aarn Ramrez, was visiting Zillah in July 1999 from another parish in the Diocese of Yakima.

The teen reported the incident to 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. Police never obtained a complete statement, nor were charges filed.

Shortly after the incident, Ramrez disappeared. He was later found when Dallas newspaper reporters were researching a story about Catholic clerics who surface in churches in other countries after allegations of abuse have been made against them. The reporters found Ramrez was serving as an Episcopal priest in two parishes outside Mexico City.

When the local VOTF group learned the whereabouts of Ramrez, its coordinator, Robert Fontana, wrote a letter to Sevilla asking if the Episcopal Bishop of Mexico City had ever been notified of the Zillah incident. At the time, Fontana was working as diocesan director of evangelism.

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

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

Fontana worked for the diocese for 25 years. He brought suit against the diocese in 2005, saying he had been forced to resign. He said he also had been reprimanded twice at work in 2004 for questioning how the diocese was handling the case of a priest who, church officials believe, had downloaded images of naked boys.

His case was dismissed last year by a state court of appeals.


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