Marcos Breton: Priest's Downfall a Tragedy of Faith, Delusion and Denial
By Marcos Breton
July 7, 2013
The nature of faith is to believe in something larger than yourself.
The danger of faith is to believe something that isn't true – either because you need to believe it or because you can't face the truth.
That's when faith becomes delusion and denial.
It happened Friday, when celestial faith was projected onto a mortal, a priest, who pleaded no contest to sexually molesting a 13-year-old girl – even as the priest's friends watched the proceedings in court.
The Rev. Uriel Ojeda, once the shining star of the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, was handcuffed and taken into custody after accepting a plea for forcing himself on a young girl. It was a cold legal conclusion to a tragedy of faith placed too fervently in one young man.
But his followers saw something else.
"Jesus Christ isn't the only one," Sylvia Chavez said before stopping mid-sentence and finishing her thought: "Jesus Christ was crucified while being innocent."
From the beginning, faith, denial and delusion were embodied in the charismatic Ojeda, who touched many hearts before breaking them – including mine.
On Friday, I had a close view of Ojeda's anguished face as the court rendered judgment on the 33-year-old cleric for whom many saw big, big things.
That was the problem.
Many placed their faith in Ojeda for reasons beyond the man himself.
He was supposed to be part of a new generation of priests that would move the Catholic Church beyond the scandal of sexual abuse.
His story was told many times in The Bee. His candor about how he felt temptation and worried that he might stumble made him human. But those words are haunting now.
He went to Spanish-speaking parishes and raised the faithful in ways they had never known.
Women flocked to him, to mother him and be near him. He played music and moved audiences of young Catholics to their feet in joy and ecstasy.
He was at the heart of a fatal shooting case in Woodland, serving as a mediator for the dead man's family, who believed Yolo County sheriff's deputies had unjustly murdered their son.
He always seemed to be at the heart of things. When my dad was dying, a friend brought Father Ojeda to my dad's side the night before he died.
So when the Diocese of Sacramento later moved Ojeda to a parish in Redding, I wrote a column criticizing the decision.
The Woodland faithful loved Ojeda and needed him, I wrote. I believed church leaders were too indifferent to Ojeda's flock and the role he played in mediating the controversy over the Woodland man's death.
I was deluded and in denial. One of the reasons priests are moved from church to church is to prevent parishioners from becoming too attached.
Feelings of worship are supposed to be reserved for one man, and he is not an earthly priest.
Scripture is full of examples of how we can become confused by our emotions, attachments and flaws.
We can become blind by our misplaced faith.
On Friday, authorities read the criminal charge against Ojeda in open court, how he crept into the bedroom of the girl when everyone else in her house was asleep.
How Ojeda slipped into her bed and put his hand down her pajama pants.
The judge asked Ojeda if he realized that his no contest plea would be viewed as a guilty plea in the eyes of the court.
Ojeda said he understood.
The judge asked Ojeda if he engaged in "substantial sexual conduct" with the girl. "I admit," Ojeda said.
The judge asked Ojeda if he realized that, after leaving prison, he would be a registered sex offender in California. Ojeda said he understood.
The judge asked Ojeda if he fully appreciated that by accepting the plea, he was waiving his right to a trial.
Ojeda said yes.
The case very likely would have gone to trial if Ojeda's lawyer, Jesse Ortiz, was able to quash statements that Ojeda made to diocese officials just before he was arrested in November 2011.
Ortiz is one of the best criminal defense lawyers in Sacramento, but he couldn't keep Ojeda's alleged admissions out of the evidence.
Once that was decided by Superior Court Judge Eugene L. Balonon, a plea deal was reached – one that will likely result in eight years in prison for the priest.
Losing at trial might have brought a 20-year prison sentence.
At 33, a man can still have a life after eight years in prison, but after 20? Clearly, Ojeda didn't want to risk going forward with his alleged admissions read to a jury.
On Friday, before Ojeda was handcuffed, one of his followers grasped a diocese spokesman, Kevin Eckery.
"Congratulations," she said over and over again, while holding Eckery in a manner that could only be described as unnerving.
"The only thing I can say is that everything has been carried out based on lies," Ana Bermudez said.
Sylvia Chavez, a buyer for a local grocery chain, said, "It was a plan.
"Bishop (Jaime Soto of the Sacramento Diocese) didn't want him there before he was ordained. And now he's been successful in getting him out."
Why would Soto do that?
"That's up to you guys to investigate," Chavez said.
With that, Ojeda's friends turned and walked away, believing what they needed to believe despite what they had seen and heard.