Mexico Frees Ex-priest in Molest Case

By Jennifer Garza
Sacramento Bee

August 21, 2008

Mexican authorities have released a former Sacramento priest who was awaiting extradition to California on charges that he sexually abused two minors nearly 17 years ago.

Sacramento church officials said they have no idea where Gerardo Beltran has gone since his release last week from a Mexico City jail, where he had been held since March.

Diocesan officials said they had been working with the Vatican for nearly two years to remove Beltran and two others Jose Luis Urbina and Francisco Javier Garcia from the priesthood. All three worked in the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento and had fled to Mexico after being accused of sexually molesting minors.

On Wednesday, diocesan officials announced that the three men have been laicized, or barred from serving as priests anywhere in the world.

"These men are no longer priests," said Kevin Eckery, diocesan spokesman. "We don't want them as priests and neither does Rome."

Beltran, 51, was arrested in March by Mexican authorities and was expected to be extradited to the United States to face charges of child molestation in Sacramento.

He is accused of four counts of child molestation between 1989 and 1991 in cases involving two victims. Two more accusers came forward in April, after learning about Beltran in the media. Three additional charges have been filed against Beltran for acts between 1988 and 1991, according to the Sacramento County District Attorney's Office.

Beltran's return to face his accusers, however, is not likely to happen soon, if at all.

"Our understanding is that he was released from custody when Mexican courts ruled that he couldn't be extradited because the statute of limitations had run out," said Jeff Galvin, assistant information officer at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City.

Neither Urbina nor Garcia has been arrested.

Officials with the Mexican attorney general's office in Mexico City could not be reached for comment.

The Sacramento County District Attorney's Office issued a statement: "The warrants for (Beltran's) prosecution here remain valid and active. Should he ever fall within our jurisdiction, the Sacramento District Attorney will prosecute."

Catholic Church leaders in Sacramento were angered by the turn of events. Eckery called Beltran's release "a huge disappointment."

"We were really hoping that justice would be served and people could get their day in court," he said. "To be denied justice by Mexican authorities is tough to swallow."

Joseph George, who represents Beltran's accusers, said he was "shocked and speechless."

"Having just sat through a deposition of a Father Beltran victim yesterday who was molested over 100 times, I am extremely disappointed," he said.

In 2005, the Dallas Morning News reported that Beltran and Urbina had been serving as priests in Mexico for years. Diocesan officials said they had known for years the three priests were in Mexico but didn't learn that they were continuing to serve as priests until it was reported in the media.

Bishop William Weigand, leader of the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, then contacted Rome and began the laicization process, according to Eckery. "Just telling the Mexican church officials obviously wasn't enough," said Eckery.

The laicization process, which officially means returning to the lay state, can take years. The bishop must provide evidence stating why the priest should be banned, according to canon law experts.

"Each case is evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and when it is done as a penalty, it must be for a grave reason," said Sister Sharon Euart, executive coordinator for the Canon Law Society of America.

Eckery said church officials expect more former Sacramento priests to be banned from the clergy in the coming months, including the Rev. Mario Blanco. Blanco works as a Tacoma, Wash., priest in an independent church that does not recognize Vatican authority. The Catholic Diocese of Sacramento has settled 15 lawsuits involving Blanco.

Urbina, Garcia and Beltran have been notified of their laicization. So has the Mexican Conference of Bishops, said Eckery. Beltran was notified in jail that the process was under way and that he would no longer be a priest.

"It's hard to fathom how hurtful this must be to his victims," said Eckery. "Where he is, I don't know."



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