Priest Loses Custody of Triplets Fathered by Donating Sperm - Accused of Abusing Those Children

By Carolyn Peirce

October 30, 2008

A Catholic priest found to have sexually abused two of his 6-year-old triplets lost custody this week to the woman who gave birth to the children using his donated sperm and another woman’s eggs.

The state’s second-highest court held Monday that Fernando Cristancho, 52, of Bel Air, is unfit to parent the triplets, two boys and a girl, and granted custody to Dalia Fernandez, 57, the woman who gave birth to them using in vitro fertilization.

The decision affirmed the ruling of Harford Circuit Judge Emory Plitt Jr., who said Fernandez deserved the children because she was a de facto parent acting as their mother even though she was unrelated.

Plitt’s decision had been called into question when the state’s highest court ruled against the de facto parent doctrine in another case during Cristancho’s appeal, saying only extreme circumstances overrule a parent’s right to custody.

“One of the constitutionally protected rights is for a parent to have say with regard to [the custody of] their children and to overcome that, you have to show some sort of unfitness by the parent,” said J. Richard Moore III, Fernandez’s trial attorney who is now a master in Harford. Masters make recommendations in family and juvenile cases that are sent to judges who make the final decision.

Moore said the intermediate appellate court upheld Plitt’s ruling because the sexual abuse was proof enough that Cristancho was unfit, even if the de facto parent doctrine was tossed.

“Plitt took into account that the court might rule in that fashion,” Moore said. “So, he also found that Cristancho was unfit ... and basically made the opinion bulletproof.”

Cristancho’s’ attorney Laura Bearsch said the appeal was based on discrepancies in what the boys reported and a Department of Social Services investigation that was “really, really full of errors.”

Bearsch said the boys were never interviewed alone, and authorities were “picking and choosing” what to believe. Cristancho never was criminally charged with sex abuse, she said.

According to Monday’s opinion, Cristancho asked his Platonic friend Fernandez to travel with him to Colombia in 2001 and undergo the in vitro process, because he had taken a vow of celibacy.

Church officials learned of the children’s birth in November and fired Cristancho from his position as assistant priest at St. Ignatius Church in Forest Hill. His relationship with Fernandez soon dwindled.

According to the opinion, one of the boys disclosed the sexual abuse in 2005, but the family’s doctor told Fernandez that police wouldn’t believe the boy because of his age.

When the boy told the same story in 2006 to a baby sitter, police were notified along with the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the Department of Social Services.

Cristancho also was accused in 1997 of sexual misconduct with a young woman who wasn’t a minor, for which he was fired from the Parish Council at Good Shepherd Church in Alexandria, Va., according to the opinion.



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