Lawyer for Accused Houston Area Priest Believes Slow-going Sex Abuse Case Will Go to Trial
By Nicole Hensley
January 10, 2019
|Manuel La Rosa-Lopez, a former priest at Conroe’s Sacred Heart Catholic Church, makes his way into the 435th state District Court of Judge Patty Maginnis on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019 in Conroe. La Rosa-Lopez was charged with four counts of indecency with a child.Photo: Cody Bahn, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer
The criminal probe into a Houston-area priest is on pace to go to trial, which could become the region’s highest-profile clergy sex abuse case in more than two decades.
The priest’s lawyer, Wendell Odom, made the prediction Thursday afternoon after his client, Manuel La Rosa-Lopez, was rushed out of the Montgomery County courthouse through a back door after a status hearing.
“This is such a high-publicity case, in all probability, I think this case is going to go to trial,” Odom said.
The clergy investigation, which expanded last fall with a fourth search warrant at the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston headquarters in downtown Houston, has produced a hefty load of evidence for authorities to examine. The three prior searches happened at the Shalom Center in Splendora, Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Conroe and La Rosa-Lopez’s most recent assignment at St. John Fisher Church in Richmond.
La Rosa-Lopez last appeared in court in October. He was arrested Sept. 11 on four counts of indecency with a child for claims that he molested a boy and a girl at the Conroe parish from 1998 to 2000.
A grand jury has not yet been established to formally indict him on the charges, Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney Tyler Dunman said after the hearing.
“This is going to be a long haul,” Dunman said. “If we get to trial this year, it will be later this year at the earliest.”
On Thursday, La Rosa-Lopez emerged from a narrow corridor to enter the 435th District Court only after a bailiff called his name. He whispered to his attorney and repeatedly glanced back at four rows of journalists as Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon and Judge Patty Maginnis sorted through an unrelated case.
The priest’s case was quietly reset to March 28 without La Rosa-Lopez having to step up to the front of the courtroom. A team of lawyers escorted him out of the building through a winding hall and staircase before reaching the street where a car was waiting for him. He did not respond to shouted questions.
“He can’t practice. I imagine he’s in a situation where he’s agonizing over it and hoping it will end shortly,” Odom told reporters. “I’m sure he’s doing a lot of praying. This is very difficult for him. There’s very little he can do at this point other than let the process take its course.”
The process has been sluggish, which is normal, Ligon said. He attributed the pace to the large volume of evidence that’s up to only a handful of investigators to sort through. A document filed soon after La Rosa-Lopez’s court appearance referenced the workload: “Still working on discovery.”
“I’ve got two guys working at something that (Houston Police Department) would put 20 guys on,” Ligon said. “As far as we are concerned, everything is proceeding on time as usual.”
La Rosa-Lopez’s lawyer declined to comment on the claims against the priest — including allegations from a third accuser — until he is able to comb through the same evidence from prosecutors.
“The state has seized a lot of records and then they have to turn stuff over to us. We’re just waiting for them to give us information,” Odom said.
A 37-year-old Army veteran became the third accuser to step forward with molestation claims against La Rosa-Lopez soon after his arrest in September. He contends La Rosa-Lopez, then a seminarian, abused him in 1993 when he was a 12-year-old altar boy at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Houston.
“We still want to see the documents,” Odom added. “We barely know who the third accuser is except from what we read in the papers.”
Dunman said investigators, including the Texas Rangers, are communicating with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office about whether the latest claim will amount to additional charges.
The third accuser’s police report stemmed from dozens of tips that surfaced after La Rosa-Lopez’s arrest and it went straight to Dunman. Some of the tips, Dunman said, included claims that investigators have disproved.
Several witnesses identified in sworn statements by their initials have been interviewed for information, but will not result in charges, Dunman added.
The last Catholic priest in the Houston area to face a trial on sex abuse charges was Fernando Noe Guzman, who pleaded guilty to sexual assault of a child in 1992 just as the jury was seated. The Grimes County District Attorney accepted the plea bargain only after consulting with the victim, who was 13 when the abuse took place in Navasota.
The Houston Chronicle reported at the time that the victim reluctantly agreed to testify. The charge stemmed from allegations that surfaced during a failed civil suit against Guzman and the then-Diocese of Galveston-Houston.