Allegation of Sexual Abuse by Priest Shocks West Texas Town

By Louis Sahagun
Los Angeles Times
April 10, 2010,0,3662053.story

Father John M. Fiala was a trusted spiritual leader in Rocksprings, a small ranching community. A suit filed Thursday alleges that he sexually assaulted a teen at gunpoint.

Reporting from Rocksprings, Texas

Allegations that a local parish priest raped a teenager at gunpoint have spawned a wave of soul-searching in this remote West Texas sheep- and goat-ranching community and denials of a coverup from the Catholic archdiocese in San Antonio led by Archbishop Jose Gomez.

Accusations that Father John M. Fiala sexually assaulted the boy in 2007 and 2008 -- twice at gunpoint -- surfaced Thursday in a lawsuit filed against the archdiocese and Gomez, who was named earlier this week to lead the archdiocese in L.A.

The lawsuit alleges that Fiala was pastoral administrator at Sacred Heart of Mary Church in this remote Texas hill country community when he began sexually abusing the teen during catechism lessons.

Edwards County, Texas, Sheriff Don Letsinger said the archdiocese and Gomez had handled the case properly.

"Up to this point, they have cooperated fully in this investigation," Letsinger said in an interview in a cluttered office adorned with a framed portrait of John Wayne. "The first time I called the archdiocese about it, they sent Father Martin Leopold, their chief administrator, out to see me. He got here in two hours flat and signed consent forms for me to search the church."

"They have provided all the information I asked for," he said, "and they suspended Fiala almost immediately after I called about the investigation."

Letsinger said the case involves criminal investigations in three counties, adding: "This investigation is about a year-and-a-half old, but it is complete and we're ready for indictments. I think we have a good case."

But San Antonio attorney Tom Rhodes, who brought the suit on behalf of the unnamed alleged victim and his family, blamed Gomez for "blindly turning away from all the red flags in Fiala's employment files, such as numerous transfers and gaps in which he had no assignments at all."

"There is no way these incidents could have occurred without the church's knowledge and the enablement of Fiala," he said in an interview.

The allegations shocked residents of the town, 140 miles northwest of San Antonio, who had come to trust Fiala as a spiritual leader and family friend.

In one of his last priestly duties here, Fiala conducted a 50th anniversary Mass for lifelong residents Francisco Carillo, 73, and his wife. But on Friday, as Carillo raked oak leaves in front of his modest trailer home, he shook his head and said, "We never thought anything like this could happen. But maybe it did."

Delia Rendon, 38, put it another way: "It tears us apart inside because he was supposed to be holy."

Gomez's archdiocese has jurisdiction over a large portion of South Texas and West Texas, including the Edward County seat of Rocksprings, a town of 2,100 people on a plateau overlooking the headwaters of the Nueces and Llano rivers.

The boy's family first learned of the alleged abuse after he tried to commit suicide, Rhodes said.

Pat Rogers, spokesman for the archdiocese, declined to comment on the lawsuit. But in a prepared statement, he said the archdiocese received a complaint of interference with a minor -- not sexual abuse -- against Fiala in the fall of 2008.

Rhodes, however, said that complaint was lodged after Fiala had asked to spend time with the alleged victim away from his family. The youth was 16 at the time.

Rogers said archdiocese officials have been cooperating with law enforcement authorities ever since. Gomez, he said, informed Fiala's religious order, the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, that Fiala had been suspended from ministry work in the archdiocese, including his appointment at Sacred Heart and three other congregations, effective Oct. 24, 2008.



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