S.F. Priest Accused of Molesting Minors in 80s

Associated Press, carried in Times-Standard
July 18, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO—U.S. and Mexican authorities are searching for a Catholic priest who is believed to have fled the country after learning that he was accused of sexually abusing several minors in San Diego two decades ago, church officials said.

The Rev. Jose Chavarin, 59, apparently left town last month, several days after officials with the Archdiocese of San Francisco, where he's worked for the past 11 years, confronted him about the allegations, diocese spokesman Maurice Healy said. Officials there got two phone calls shortly after, saying Chavarin was in Mexico, Healy said.

The Diocese of San Diego first learned of Chavarin's alleged sex abuse on June 20, the same day it alerted authorities and San Francisco church officials, according to its spokesman, Chancellor Rodrigo Valdivia. California law mandates that the church notify law enforcement or Child Protective Services of the alleged abuse to minors within 24 hours of learning it.

"The Diocese of San Diego reported the abuse to law enforcement and notified the Archdiocese of San Francisco immediately after learning about the alleged abuse," Valdivia said in an e-mail.

Chavarin denied the accusations when confronted in San Francisco, Healy said, and the priest was immediately placed on administrative leave.

After the confrontation, Chavarin said he wanted to leave the San Francisco Bay area and visit his family, but diocese officials told him not to leave town, Healy said.

Three days later, the diocese received a voicemail from someone claiming to be Chavarin's friend stating that the priest was killed in a car crash in Mexico, his native country. The same person then called again, this time saying that Chavarin was alive in Mexico and planned to return, according to the diocese.

"We instructed him to stay in the Bay Area, but evidently he'd gone to Mexico and we've had no contact since then," Healy said.

Charles Smith, a spokesman at the U.S. consulate in Tijuana, said authorities there were looking into the case.

"We'll take whatever information that we have, and we'll try to call local police, check the morgues, it really depends on the threads of evidence given to us by the inquirer," Smith said. "So far those have turned up negative."

Monica Munoz, a spokeswoman for the San Diego police department, said they received a letter on July 2 from an attorney who represents two of the alleged victims who claimed they were abused by Chavarin between 1986 and 1991.

Munoz said police are in contact with the victims' attorney, whom police would not name, and that the attorney is encouraging the victims to come forward.

Chavarin is a canon lawyer who for the past six months had been in Rome studying law and has worked in the diocese's Metropolitan Tribunal, where married couples apply to get annulments.

Healy said church members were notified of the case in a diocese newsletter this month and that no allegations against Chavarin have surfaced locally.

California law allows prosecutors one year after victims report child abuse to police to file criminal charges in child molestation cases. For civil cases, alleged victims have until the age of 26 to file suit, or within three years of when a person discovers they were traumatized by childhood sexual abuse.

In September, the San Diego diocese reached a $198 million settlement with 144 people who claimed they were abused by clergy as children.

The diocese, which avoided civil litigation on the abuse by filing for bankruptcy in February 2007 on the eve of the first trial, has implemented new awareness programs to combat abuse. In March 2007, the diocese released the names of 38 priests accused of abuse—not including Chavarin.

Plaintiffs' attorney Andrea Leavitt, one of the lead lawyers in the case, said she wasn't surprised that new allegations were still surfacing.

"This diocese was somewhat of a rogue diocese. They were committed to first denying allegations, then waging a war of attrition against victims and doing everything possible to wear them down and go away," she said.


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