Salinas Priest Accused of Abuse

By Larry Parsons
Monterey Herald
April 18, 2009

The Rev. Antonio Cortes 41-year-old led St. Mary's of The Nativity Catholic Church in Salinas...

Salinas police say incident was this week

A Salinas priest was arrested on a charge of unlawful sexual conduct with a teenage boy, Salinas police said Friday.

Detectives took the Rev. Antonio Cortes, 41, pastor at St. Mary's of The Nativity Catholic Church, into custody Thursday afternoon and searched the rectory at the East Salinas church, police said.

Cortes, who had been the head priest at St. Mary's since June 2007, was booked into the county jail on two counts of child molestation, a single count of sodomy and multiple counts of providing alcohol to a minor. His bail was set at $750,000, and he remained in custody Friday afternoon.

Police said the investigation was continuing. Cmdr. Dino Bardoni said he couldn't release details about the case to prevent problems if other victims come forward.

"With a case like this, it's not uncommon for other victims to come forward," he said.

The victim reported the alleged activity with the priest to police. Bardoni said the activity took place during the past week on church property.

A spokesman for the Diocese of Monterey said the diocese was cooperating fully with police.

"All the information we have about Father Cortes is being shared," said spokesman Warren Hoy. "Anything we can do to assist in this investigation we will do."

In a prepared statement Friday, the diocese said Cortes has been suspended from his role as a priest in accord with its charter on sexual misconduct.

Cortes has worked as a priest in the Monterey diocese, which includes Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo and San Benito counties, for 12 years.

Before moving to the Salinas church, he was pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Greenfield for four years and before that was an associate pastor at St. Theodore's Church in Gonzales, Hoy said.

There were no reports of earlier problems with Cortes, Hoy said.

"This is the first allegation of any sort since Father Cortes came to the diocese," he said. "This is the first arrest of a priest in the diocese on sexual charges."

He said the diocese has a charter for protecting children and young people that has "zero tolerance for sexual misconduct."

The Rev. Jose Albert Vazquez, a priest on the diocese staff, was assigned to duties at St. Mary's on Friday morning, Hoy said.

Five years ago, the diocese was embroiled in seven civil lawsuits involving sexual misconduct allegations. After it settled one case for about $760,000, the diocese released a 2004 report detailing the lawsuits.

Three of them dealt with accusations of sexual wrongdoing involving church personnel in Monterey County from the 1960s to 1996.

The suit, settled for $760,000, alleged that a priest at St. Mary's repeatedly molested a boy who attended the church in the 1960s during a three-year period that began when the boy was 10.

Many of the suits against the diocese at that time were filed after a California law suspended the statute of limitations on child molestation cases for part of 2003.

Before that flurry of litigation, which came as the U.S. Catholic Church was dealing with widespread scandal about sexual abuse by priests, The Herald conducted a 2002 investigation that uncovered four civil suits against the diocese involving accusations of sexual abuse going back 25 years.

Friday's statement from the diocese said Bishop Richard Garcia "is deeply saddened by this incident and offers his prayers for all those involved, especially the victim and the St. Mary's community."

Police and diocese officials urged anyone with information about the case or about possible victims to call Salinas detectives Lalo Villegas at 758-7348 or Luis Bravo at 758-7124. Callers can use the anonymous tip line at 775-4222 or WE TIP at 800-78-CRIME.

Larry Parsons can be reached at 646-4379 or


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