Alleged victims say officials ignored complaints about ex-Conroe priest

By Massarah Mikati And Robert Downen
San Antonio Express-News
September 13, 2018

Manuel La- Rosa-Lopez was arrested Tuesday and charged with four counts of indecency.

[with video]

Two people who say they were sexually abused by a former Conroe priest nearly two decades ago say the Houston region’s highest-ranking Catholic official failed to properly investigate their alleged assaults.

The accusations against Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, who has led the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston since 2006, come just weeks after DiNardo called for more transparency into the church’s handling of sexual abuse allegations and as he prepares to meet with Pope Francis and two other prelates on Thursday to discuss the controversy.

But a man and a woman who allege they were abused by the priest, Father Manuel La Rosa-Lopez, said in interviews that their claims were not taken seriously by DiNardo.

La Rosa-Lopez, 60, who recently served as the pastor at St. John Fisher Catholic Church in Richmond and the episcopal vicar for Hispanics, was arrested by Conroe police Tuesday and charged with four counts of indecency with a child, following the filing of a police report by the male victim on Aug. 27.

La Rosa-Lopez has denied the allegations, church officials said in a written statement.

The archdiocese flew the alleged male victim to Houston to speak with DiNardo on Aug. 10, where he recounted the sexual abuse that he said he suffered at the hands of La Rosa-Lopez when he was a high school student and the priest was based at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Conroe.

DiNardo, the male victim told the Houston Chronicle last month, was dismissive of his story and told him, “Well, you should’ve told us earlier.”

An arrest warrant filed by Conroe police on Monday said the female victim “decided to make a police report because of the perceived duplicity of Cardinal DiNardo” given his recent public statements about recent priest sex scandals and because of “the church’s failure to adequately protect children” from La Rosa-Lopez.

The man and woman also discussed their concerns about DiNardo’s response with the Associated Press. The Chronicle does not typically identify alleged victims of sexual abuse.

The archdiocese defended its handling of the matters in a statement Wednesday.

Church officials said that after they learned in 2001 that La Rosa-Lopez had “kissed and touched (the alleged female victim) inappropriately,” they referred the matter to Texas Child Protective Services, or CPS. The statement said the priest denied touching the then-teenage girl inappropriately, and that the girl’s family “decided not pursue the matter, relocating out of the country that same year.” After the allegations were presented to the Archdiocesan Review Board in 2003, the statement said, La Rosa-Lopez was permitted to return to parish ministry in 2004.

“For the last 17 years, no other allegations of inappropriate conduct involving minors were presented against Father La Rosa-Lopez until 2018,” the statement continued.

The archdiocese said that when the alleged male victim formally reported on Aug. 10 that he’d been sexually abused for several years starting in 1998, the allegations were immediately reported to CPS, as well.

“We take these matters very seriously, which is why we reported the information we received from both individuals to CPS — and removed Father La Rosa-Lopez from ministry,” archdiocese officials said. Church officials said they are cooperating with the official investigation.

In the early 2000s — and amid a wave of scandals involving child abuse — Catholic leaders established guidelines that, among other things, called for notifying law enforcement of any such allegations made against clergy.

Spotlight on abuse

The renewed focus on clergy sex abuse in the Catholic Church follows the release this past summer of a Pennsylvania grand jury report that detailed allegations against more than 300 “predator priests” and said there were at least 1,000 child victims, and likely far more, in that state alone.

Pope Francis found his trip to Ireland overshadowed by a former Vatican official’s accusation that the pontiff knew about past sexual misconduct by ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick since 2013 and rehabilitated him despite sanctions imposed on McCarrick several years prior. Francis dismissed the claims by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, who the New York Times reports was aligned with conservatives unhappy with Francis’ “inclusive vision” of the church and found himself “iced out” after Francis’ election as pope.

DiNardo climbed through the Catholic ranks after being ordained in Pittsburgh. He later moved to Houston, and in 2007 became the first cardinal from a Southern U.S. diocese, the Chronicle reported at the time. In addition to leading the Galveston-Houston area’s 1.7 million Catholics, he serves as head of the U.S. Conference of Bishops.

He said recently that the handling of the McCarrick case represented a “grievous moral failure within the church” and called for conclusive answers in the matter, as well as a “plan of action” for dealing with such allegations in the future.

But the alleged male victim, now 34, said he was not satisfied with DiNardo’s response to his accusations.

He told Conroe police that he reached out a year ago to his local parish in Portland, Ore., which put him in touch with the Galveston-Houston archdiocese’s victims assistance coordinator. The arrest warrant says he was interviewed by the coordinator and DiNardo, then offered counseling services.

“It was a dismissive tone,” the man told the AP. “In the back of my head, I was thinking about his comment. I was so mad afterward.”

He said he was told that the allegations had been referred to Conroe police and CPS, but that he’d been “unable to locate any such reporting,” according to the arrest warrant. So he went to the police himself. “I filed it myself. I had to,” he said.

He identified other potential victims to Conroe police.

“It was not just me, it was me and a few other guys,” said the man, who grew up in Conroe. “Now I still have certain trust and self-esteem issues, especially with intimacy. And on the spiritual side, it’s gone for me. I don’t believe in any of that crap.”

The man said the abuse started when he was 14 and continued until he was 16.

“I went to seminary when I was 12, 13, 14, and (La Rosa-Lopez) kind of took me under his wing because my parents worked all the time,” he said. “The affection towards me started getting weird, and started going from affection to touching, from touching to making out, from making out to making out with no clothes on.”

‘Grooming behavior’

The alleged female victim reported that La Rosa-Lopez was serving as her confessor when he abused her. She told Conroe police that the priest engaged in “grooming behavior” that consisted of kissing and heavy petting. She said the behavior culminated on April 4, 2000, after a confession in his office. She said La Rosa-Lopez removed his white collar and began kissing her and pressing himself against her. Two days later, she told police, she was alone with the priest in the church kitchen following a practice for the Passion of the Christ play when she says he “began fondling her, and reached underneath her shirt and bra to touch her breasts with his hands.”

According to the arrest warrant, the female victim believed she was in a romantic relationship with La Rosa-Lopez and recorded incidents in a diary. The victim’s father found the diary and determined that it was about La Rosa-Lopez, confronted the priest and reported the issues to church officials. The result, the warrant states, is that La Rosa-Lopez was transferred from the church and the girl’s family moved from Conroe.

But upon returning to Conroe in 2010, she read in a Catholic newspaper that La Rosa-Lopez had been promoted and assigned his own church in Richmond. She told police that she followed up with church officials and was told that the priest had been “placed in an administrative position from which he had no contact with children or teenagers.” She told the AP that officials had her meet with La Rosa-Lopez and he apologized.

Michael Norris, leader of the Houston chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, urged victims and witnesses of abuse within the church to contact police.

“An incendiary charge has been leveled against the highest ranking U.S. Catholic official: that he promised to keep an accused predator priest away from kids but for years did not,” he wrote to the Chronicle. “Houston Catholic officials, including (DiNardo), must address this promptly and honestly.”

In a press statement released Wednesday, the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston confirmed that they had received the allegations of sexual abuse from both victims. However, they said that they had immediately reported the allegations to CPS.

“We take these matters very seriously, which is why we reported the information we received from both individuals to CPS — and removed (La Rosa-Lopez) from ministry,” the statement read. “To anyone affected by any form of abuse by anyone who represents the Church, the Archdiocese deeply regrets such a fundamental violation of trust, and commits itself to eliminating such unacceptable actions.”



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