Salinas Priest Arrested in Sex Case

By Sunita Vijayan
The Californian
April 18, 2009

Rev. Antonio Cortes

A Roman Catholic priest in Salinas was suspended of his church duties and jailed Thursday on suspicion of having sexual contact with a teenage boy.

The Rev. Antonio Cortes, parish priest at St. Mary of the Nativity Catholic Church, was arrested Thursday at the church's office, which is across from the church at 1747 Second Ave.

Cortes, 41, remained in Monterey County Jail on Friday afternoon. His bail was set at $750,000.

The priest is accused of 20 counts of selling liquor to a minor, one count of sodomy with a person under the age of 18 and two counts of child molestation. Cortes' arraignment is expected to occur next week.

Late Friday afternoon, some parishioners said they had been shocked to hear the allegations against Cortes.

Eduardo Avina of Salinas, who has been going to St. Mary's for years, said he had been thinking about signing up his 10-year-old daughter for catechism classes. Now, Avina said, he has second thoughts.

"This was a safe place, but now it makes us wonder," he said. "We don't have anybody we can trust anymore."

Warren Hoy, spokesman for the Diocese of Monterey, said church officials were notified of the arrest late

Thursday afternoon and are cooperating fully with investigators.

Cortes has been placed on paid administrative leave. His suspension, Hoy said, means Cortes will not be conducting any parish duties while the criminal proceedings are under way. If Cortes makes bail, he said, he will move out of the rectory on parish grounds to an unspecified location in Monterey County.

Roughly 5,000 people worship at St. Mary's, Hoy said.

He said Cortes has been the priest at St. Mary's since June 2007 and has been with the diocese for about 12 years.

The Rev. Jose Alberto Vazquez-Martin, the diocese's director of vocations, is running St. Mary's parish as Cortes undergoes court proceedings, Hoy said.

At this weekend's mass at St. Mary's, he said, a statement by Bishop Richard J. Garcia will be read to parishioners.

Salinas police Cmdr. Dino Bardoni said the crimes took place on church property. But citing the ongoing investigation, Bardoni declined to provide further details, such as the timeframe of the incidents or whether the boy is part of the parish.

"We're not putting out specifics of the case because it is very common in these cases for other witnesses to come forward," Bardoni said. "These are serious charges, and it is very important to get to the truth."

Prior to St. Mary's, Hoy said, Cortes was a priest at Holy Trinity Church in Greenfield, from September 2003 until he went to St. Mary's. He was the associate pastor at St. Theodore's Catholic Church from August 2002 to September 2003. Before that, he served as associate pastor at Sacred Heart Church in Salinas from July 1996 through August 2002.

"It's hard for me to believe the allegations," said the Rev. Mike Miller, priest at Sacred Heart Church in Salinas, on Friday afternoon. "If there is one thing I hope in the Catholic Church we've learned is that the safety of the minor comes first, and we have to take it seriously."

Miller said it was when he became the priest for the Sacred Heart parish in 1999 that he first met Cortes.

He said Cortes is actively involved in the community. Miller said Cortes has exemplary leadership skills and cares about the community.

"He has been a breath of fresh air," he said. "For me, Father Antonio is innocent until proven guilty, and my instinct about him was always positive."

If the charges Cortes faces are dropped or cleared, Hoy said, the diocese - in accord with church law - will initiate its own investigation. He said the diocese has "zero tolerance" for "sexual misconduct involving children or young people."

The diocese conducts a complete background check, Hoy said, in hiring any employee. He said this is the first time a priest in the Diocese in Monterey has been arrested on suspicion of sexual misconduct with a minor.In 2002, the county District Attorney's Office reviewed case histories of priests accused of sexually abusing minors dating back to the 1940s to determine whether any merited criminal prosecution.

Chief Assistant District Attorney Terry Spitz said Friday that no charges were filed in the old cases.

In February 2003, the Catholic Diocese of Monterey was faced with a lawsuit by three plaintiffs, who were former altar boys, in a molestation lawsuit in the 1960s in Felton. The suit alleged that the diocese had known the Rev. Patrick McHugh was a serial pedophile when they sent him to serve at St. John's. McHugh died in 1979.

Hoy said the diocese later settled out of court with the three men in the suit.

About a half dozen lawsuits were filed against the diocese in 2003, he said, during the height of the nationwide church sexual abuse scandals. The suits were either settled or dismissed, Hoy said.



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