Church Leadership on Spot As Priest in Sex Case Vanishes

By Sandi Dolbee
San Diego Union-Tribune
November 21, 1993

On the day before his final Mass in Denver in August, Pope John Paul II told the teen-agers, adults, nuns and priests who packed McNichols Sports Arena that he was troubled by the "suffering and scandal caused by the sins of some ministers of the altar."

The pontiff added that "every human means for responding to this evil must be implemented."

In the audience were delegates from Chula Vista's Church of the Most Precious Blood — including the church's associate pastor, the Rev. Emmanuel Omemaga, and a 14-year-old parishioner.

Two days later, as the delegation returned from Denver, Omemaga allegedly began molesting the young girl.

The encounters allegedly continued for more than a month. Afterward, the 35-year-old priest on loan from the Philippines would admit his transgressions to diocesan officials and tearfully wonder what would happen if he simply returned to his country.

In his last meeting with an assistant to the bishop, Omemaga was beside himself with fear of going to jail and had to be talked into seeing a defense attorney. When he left the Rev. Steve Callahan's office, he did go see that attorney. But then he dropped out of sight.

Now, with a $1 million warrant for Omemaga's arrest on 39 felony counts of sexual abuse, John Paul's words return as a question: Did Catholic leadership in San Diego implement "every human means for responding to this evil?"

"Short of putting him in a seat and tying him down, I don't know what other means we could have used to get him to (go to the police)," said Mark Brumley, spokesman for the diocese.

Brumley said the diocese has cooperated fully in the investigation, including urging Omemaga to go to the police and offering pastoral assistance and counseling to the girl.

Chula Vista Police Sgt. Mike Becker agrees — to a point.

"I would say they have been as cooperative as they can be," Becker said. Any attempt to summon police or try to detain the suspect would have been a judgment call that the church — or any other employer — does not like to make, he said.

Still, Becker added, "If it were my child, I certainly would have appreciated it if they would have done something like that."

Omemaga came to the Chula Vista parish about a year ago after working for several years with migrant workers in Manila, according to Archbishop Onesimo Gordoncillo.

In a telephone interview from Roxas city on the island of Panay, Gordoncillo said he did not know Omemaga well because they generally saw each other only during annual pastoral visits.

Omemaga had been a teacher at a Catholic college in Roxas but took a study leave about five years ago, Gordoncillo said, which is when he went to Manila and began working with migrants who travel to the United States for jobs.

Gordoncillo was shocked when he learned that Omemaga is a fugitive facing 39 felony counts ranging from statutory rape to oral copulation.

"What? I am really surprised," he said Thursday night (Friday morning in the Philippines). He said he had heard some talk about a priest in trouble here, but was waiting for an official communication — "something in writing, hopefully."

Gordoncillo said he saw Omemaga last month, when the priest stopped by for an annual visit. He said Omemaga did not mention any problems. He told the bishop that he was going to visit his parents about 20 miles away in Sapi-an and then return to San Diego.

Omemaga returned to San Diego as promised. But then everything began to unravel.

In the beginning, Omemaga may have thought that he was only facing an internal investigation and disciplinary measures from the San Diego Catholic diocese. Brumley and Callahan said that when the girl's mother initially came forward, she was not interested in pressing criminal charges and the diocese was willing to respect her wishes.

On Oct. 8, the diocese asked Omemaga to surrender his authority to perform as a priest pending the investigation. Omemaga, who had been transferred to a Lakeside parish as part of several routine reassignments, agreed to surrender his authority and left on his planned trip home.

A few days later, however, the family apparently had a change of heart. On Oct. 12, Chula Vista police began their investigation.

Police in late October searched Omemaga's Lakeside rectory and confiscated several lewd photographs, according to Sgt. Becker. Police also contacted Callahan, telling him they would like to talk with Omemaga when he returned.

It was sometime during these events that Omemaga telephoned Callahan from the Philippines. He asked the bishop's liaison if there was anything new in the case. Callahan chose not to tell him about the police.

"I was afraid that if he knew that an investigation was under way, he would never come back here," Callahan said. "So I told him no."

Then, on the morning of Nov. 5, Callahan's phone rang again. Omemaga was back in town.

"I told him the police wanted to talk to him and an investigation was under way," Callahan said. " ... He was just crying on the phone and just really devastated. It was a shock to him."

Omemaga phoned back a little while later. "I wanted to be able to get him to the authorities and get him to cooperate," Callahan said. But Omemaga was afraid the office was being watched, so the two agreed to meet on a park bench outside the Immaculata church.

"He just said, 'I can't go through with this. I can't face this' ... I said to him, 'You don't have a choice at this point.' I said, 'You can't go back and undo what has already happened.' Then he asked me, 'What if I go back to the Philippines? What will happen?' "

Callahan said he told Omemaga he should stay and do the right thing. He suggested he contact a defense attorney and go see the police.

So the two men walked back to Callahan's office, where they phoned a defense attorney. They prayed together, talked a little more and then Omemaga left — promising to cooperate.

"I told him I would do whatever I could (to support him pastorally) 'but you have to cooperate completely.' I said, 'If you run, you are going to make it worse for everybody concerned.' He nodded his head and went to see (the attorney)."

Last Sunday, the Rev. Frank Wagner shocked his Chula Vista congregation when he announced that a former priest was being a investigated for allegedly molesting a teen-age girl. Omemaga's whereabouts was not known, he told them.

On Monday, the District Attorney's Office issued a $1 million warrant for Omemaga's arrest. On Wednesday, a criminal complaint of 39 felony and two misdemeanor charges were filed against the fugitive priest.

According to that complaint, Omemaga began molesting the girl on Aug. 16, the date the busload of Catholics returned from their Denver pilgrimage to see the pope.

Between Aug. 16 and Sept. 29, Omemaga is charged with unlawful sexual intercourse, oral copulation, penetration by a foreign object, sodomy, taking lewd photographs and providing liquor to a minor, according to the complaint. In addition, on what appeared to be their final encounter on Sept. 29, Omemaga is charged with forcible rape.

Becker of the Chula Vista police says Omemaga is probably out of the country — perhaps in his native Philippines. According to spokeswoman Linda Miller at the District Attorney's Office, the United States does not have an extradition treaty with the Philippines.

San Diego Bishop Robert Brom was in Washington, D.C., last week, attending the U.S. Council of Bishops where, on Wednesday, they voted 219-5 to ask theVatican to make it easier to expel priests who sexually abuse minors. Bishop John Kinney of Bismarck, N.D., head of a special bishops' panel on sexual abuse, said the vote shows "our conference is very, very serious" in its efforts to address the problem.

Callahan, who has been a priest for seven years, says he did everything he could to bring Omemaga toward justice. After all, he noted, there was no warrant for his arrest on Nov. 5, only a request by police for the priest to go see them.

And, added Brumley, Omemaga said he was going to cooperate.

Callahan conceded that Omemaga is so upset that he probably is not aware of the consequences of his behavior, saying: "All he is thinking about is keeping himself out of jail."


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