Ex-Conroe priest Manuel La Rosa-Lopez pleads guilty to child molestation charges

By Nicole Hensley
November 17, 2020

Manuel La Rosa-Lopez, former priest at Conroe's Sacred Heart Catholic Church, walks down North Main Street on Thursday, July 18, 2019 after leaving the 435th state District Court of Judge Patty Maginnis in Conroe.
Photo by Cody Bahn

Former priest Manuel La Rosa-Lopez is seen during a hearing in the 435th state District Court of Judge Patty Maginnis, Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019, in Conroe. Judge Maginnis set of trial date for La Rosa-Lopez for Feb. 18, 2020.
Photo by Jason Fochtman

Manuel La Rosa-Lopez was booked into the Montgomery County Jail on July 3 on a fifth charge of indecency with a child.

Former priest Manuel La Rosa-Lopez, whose case surfaced amid a revitalized look at how the Catholic Church handled decades of child sex abuse, on Tuesday accepted a plea deal after facing five counts of indecency with a child, officials said.

The Houston-area cleric, charged in 2018, was accused of molesting three children at a Conroe church from 1998 to 2000. He pleaded guilty to two of the charges involving one male and female victim and will be sentenced in December to a decade in prison, said Nancy Hebert, a Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office prosecutor.

Lesser felony charges stemming from a second male accuser — who said La Rosa-Lopez exposed his genitals in a confessional booth — would be dismissed, she said.

La Rosa-Lopez, who was slated to go to trial in January and had recently been considering the plea deal, Hebert said. He decided this week to accept the offer.

“It wasn’t an easy thing for him to do,” La Rosa-Lopez’s lawyer, Wendell Odom, said. “He didn’t deny kissing one of the complainants and embracing the other. The question in his mind was if it was done with pure intentions .”

Eduardo Lopez de Casas, head of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests in Houston, said clergy abusers rarely see jail time for their crimes.

“We applaud the brave victims who came forward to ensure that this dangerous man would face justice,” he added. He then expressed worry at what the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston knew about the abuse claims and when.

Archdiocese officials, when pressed to address whether La Rosa-Lopez will be laicizied following his guilty plea, referred to him as a priest.

“This was a personal decision made by Fr. Manuel after careful reflection and consultation wtih his attorney,” officials said in a statement about the plea.

“It is our fervent prayer that all persons hurt by sexual abuse, and their families, will find healing and peace, and we certianly hope that is the case for all those impacted by today’s decision,” the statement continued.

‘People will listen’

The two-year investigation into La Rosa-Lopez gained steam when authorities searched three church properties in Houston, Richmond and Conroe, including the archdiocese headquarters in downtown Houston.

During the probe, authorities unearthed allegations of inappropriate encounters spanning about three decades and involving five accusers.

Court records show La Rosa-Lopez was removed from ministry at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in 2001, when a girl’s family revealed to church leaders that he kissed and groped her. He abused another young parishioner at the same church. Religious leaders sent him to a rehabilitation center for priests for treatment and later reassigned him to St. John Fischer Catholic Church in Richmond.

The victim, now an adult, took aim at Cardinal Daniel DiNardo — who she met with in 2010 about her allegation, according to court records — after learning that La Rosa-Lopez was still a working priest. In her Conroe police report, she accused DiNardo of “perceived duplicity” for his response to the sex abuse scandal in Pennsylvania.

Prosecutors also outlined a woman’s 2005 rape accusation against La Rosa-Lopez in court records and a 2018 claim that he asked another priest for oral sex in exchange for a larger parish. The last incident was reported to the archdiocese in May of that year, court records show. He was not removed from St. John Fisher until the weeks before his September 2018 arrest.

Another incident in the prosecutors’ list of encounters happened in 1992, but did not result in a criminal charge. The priest, then a seminarian at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Houston, inappropriately touched an altar boy, according to court records. The accuser’s grandfather reported the encounter to a supervising pastor and La Rosa-Lopez vanished from the parish. Despite the complaint, La Rosa-Lopez was ordained in 1996 and started at Sacred Heart the following year.

The accuser, now an adult as well, had expected to testify in next year’s trial. In a statement, his lawyer, Adam Dinnell, said he hopes the guilty plea encourages other victims to come forward, and for Texas lawmakers to seek child sex abuse reform.

“People will listen to what happened to them and people are there to help them deal with the lasting effects of that abuse,” Dinnell said.

Avoiding a trial

While representing the priest, Odom maintains that he distanced himself from the archdiocese. And he hopes the church did not play a role in La Rosa-Lopez’s decision to accept a plea deal and avoid a trial.

“I would hope when it comes to the religious of that, that there wasn’t any religious pressure put on him,” Odom said. “There is no question that a long, drawn-out trial would not be what the church wants.”

The cardinal, as well as former Bishop Joseph Fiorenza, were included in a list of potential witnesses who prosecutors said may have had knowledge of incidents involving the priest.

The accusations against La Rosa-Lopez prompted the archdiocese to name La Rosa-Lopez among dozens of clerics whose credible abuse allegations spanned more than 50 years. The disclosure — which has not been updated since it was published in January 2019 — was similar to what the majority of U.S. dioceses and religious orders shared after the alarming Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, a statewide investigation that unveiled hundreds of accused priests.

The guilty plea came just as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which DiNardo once led, prepared for a virtual meeting that has been clouded by an ongoing sex abuse scandal involving former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Last week, the Vatican released a report that found officials at all levels — including Pope John Paul III — were aware of misconduct allegations faced by McCarrick as he continued to rise to the highest echelons of the religious heirarchy.

McCarrick was defrocked last year after a church investigation found him guilty of abuses — an extermely rare move for the Catholic Church.


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