Sex Case against Priest Creates Turmoil, Mystery

By Evan Moore
Houston Chronicle
April 24, 1995

MATHIS — Accusations that a priest drugged and sexually molested four teen-age boys and the father of one of the youths have pitted several families against their district attorney, their church and one of the country's most powerful clergymen, Bishop Rene H. Gracida.

Added to this volatile mix is the late-night disappearance of the priest, Father Jesus Garcia. His departure has prompted accusations that the Corpus Christi Diocese, Gracida, and his chancery priests have meddled in the case, counseled parishioners to withhold evidence from police and helped Garcia escape arrest.

Gracida, a colorful, outspoken bishop who wears a Stetson and carries a pool cue for a sceptre, did not return phone calls about the case.

A warrant has been issued for the arrest of Garcia, a 37-year-old cleric who served as priest of the Sacred Heart Church in Mathis, near Corpus Christi, from 1986 until sometime between midnight and 2 a.m. last Sept.15. On that night, Garcia cleaned out his room in the rectory, dumped many of his personal belongings in a garbage can and left.

That was two days after Santos and Adela Olivarez and their son, Santos Jr., 18, had approached the bishop with a strange tale: that Garcia had given the younger Olivarez drug-laced milk during an overnight stay at the rectory in February 1991 and sexually molested him.

(He and other sexual assault victims identified in this story spoke with the understanding that their names would be used.)

In addition, the Olivarezes told Gracida, Santos Olivarez Sr., a deacon who had accompanied Garcia on a trip to the Holy Land in February 1994, had an experience similar to his son's. Twice on that trip, he was drugged and molested, he said. He had tried to tell himself the incidents didn't occur, but when he learned of his son's experience he knew his memory was not faulty.

That was not all. There was another boy, Juan Rodriguez, now 23, who said he was considering marriage and was being counseled by Garcia when the priest drugged and molested him.

"The bishop (Gracida) acted surprised," said Adela Olivarez. "He told us that it would be taken care of. That they would do something about Father Garcia. "

When Garcia disappeared, the Olivarez and Rodriguez families were angry. They called the diocese again and told officials they were going to San Patricio County District Attorney Tom Bridges about Garcia. The diocese responded with a visit to Mathis by Monsignor Thomas McGuttrick on Sept.18.

When McGuttrick finished, Santos and Adela Olivarez were angrier still.

"The monsignor told us the bishop had talked to the district attorney, and Mr. Bridges knew we were coming," said Adela. "He said we should not tell the district attorney about any other boys and that our son should only answer specific questions and not elaborate about anything.

"I asked him, "Monsignor, are you telling me to lie? ' and he said, "No, Adela. I'm just telling you not to tell the whole truth. ' "

McGuttrick could not be reached for comment.

The families, however, took their stories to Bridges, who referred them to Texas Ranger Oscar Rivera. Rivera, they said, listened to their stories, sought charges of sexual assault on a minor against Garcia and secured a warrant for his arrest.

But Rivera didn't arrest Garcia.

"We knew he was in Laredo," said Adela Olivarez. "He was calling back here, talking to people he thought were his friends, and they told us. The ranger told us he knew where Garcia was in Laredo and would go arrest him, but he needed permission from the district attorney, and he wouldn't give it to him. "

Rivera did not return phone calls about Garcia.

The case dragged on for months, during which the Olivarezes learned of two other cases.

One teen-age boy came forward in March saying he was drugged with milk and molested by Garcia during a stay at the rectory. And a young man named Felix Cornejos, 22, said he was drugged and fondled by Garcia in 1993 while being counseled by Garcia about Cornejos' plans to become a priest.

Cornejos said he had reported the incident to Bishop Gracida.

"I worried about it for some months after it happened, and I decided I had to do something," said Cornejos. "I was worried that he would do it to others, but I also was worried about getting into the seminary. I was afraid they'd never let me in if I told about this. "

Cornejos wrote Gracida a letter in April 1993, describing the assault as best he could remember it and detailing his concerns.

The bishop called him to a meeting in his office, he said, and had him read the letter before three other priests, one of whom was Jesus Garcia.

"Father Garcia said I was lying," said Cornejos. "He said that I planned to be a journalist, and "you know how those journalists always go after the church. "'

Cornejos said that, after the meeting, Gracida assured him something would be done about Garcia, then counseled him not to mention the incident publicly "because it can tear the church apart. " Cornejos avoided Garcia afterward and said nothing.

It was almost a year later, when Cornejos was a seminary student, that he looked at a roster of speakers and saw Garcia's name.

The priest was scheduled to speak to the student body on morality.

"That made me sick," said Cornejos. "I wrote another letter to one of my advisers and told them I didn't see how they could let a man like that speak on morality.

"Then, a little later, I resigned from the seminary. Seeing Father Garcia up there, speaking on morality, was the main reason.

"Later, when I learned Father Garcia had left Mathis, I knew something else had happened — that he had done it again. " The news brought a flood of memories for Cornejos. He began undergoing psychiatric therapy and only recently remembered more about the night in the rectory, that Garcia had done more than fondle him.

"At one point that night he raped me," said Cornejos.

Cornejos joined the Rodriguez and Olivarez families. In January, the group retained Houston attorney Bain Pearson and filed suit against the diocese alleging that the young men suffered physical and emotional damage because of assaults by Garcia.

The church and diocese, the suit alleges, were negligent in failing to identify Garcia as a "potential priest who may be predisposed to pedophilia. " The suit, in 281st District Court in Houston, seeks unspecified damages.

Still, Garcia remained at large. The youths all filed complaints with Rivera last month and the warrant was issued for Garcia's arrest. That warrant may be useless, however. Garcia has not been seen in Mathis since Sept. 15. He was thought to be in Laredo for a month afterward, then in San Antonio.

Most recently, however, Bridges said Gracida told him that the priest flew to Spain.

"This is a difficult case," said Bridges. "I'm not used to a case like this, one in which somebody has filed a civil suit and the evidence is being made public before I could go to trial.

"I was trying to give the diocese a chance to cooperate. I still am. I'm trying to give them a chance to produce him. I can understand them being protective, wanting to give him the benefit of the doubt.

"I keep thinking they'll cooperate. "

Asked if, at some point, he might be forced to take action against the diocese, Bridges answered only, "maybe. " In Mathis, the Rodriguez and Olivarez families say they have become pariahs. An attack on the church in the Corpus Christi diocese brings attention. The city is easily 50 percent Roman Catholic. It is one of the richest dioceses in the nation, with the $ 80 million oil and gas rights of the 400,000-acre Kenedy Ranch firmly under the control of Gracida.

The bishop also controls his own telecommunications center and television station and appears regularly on his own program, the Gulf Coast Catholic Hour. He has a hunting resort on the ranch, a mansion on Ocean Drive and a diocese that stretches from Corpus Christi south to Brownsville.

Juan Rodriguez Sr., a maintenance man who works for the Sacred Heart Church there, has had his hours cut from 40 to 20 per week.

Santos Rodriguez Sr., a deacon before he filed suit against the diocese, was stripped of that post shortly after filing.

McGuttrick informed him by mail.

The families say their children have been taunted at school.

They moved Santos Rodriguez Jr. from Mathis schools to Corpus Christi but are required to pay tuition because they live in a different city. The diocese covered that tuition until they filed suit.

And, in late March, both Santos Olivarez Jr. and the fourth youth attempted suicide. Olivarez said his attempt was prompted by a sermon at Sacred Heart Church by Deacon Antonio Lara, in which Lara referred to those who have sued the diocese as "monkeys. "

"Like organ grinder's monkeys," said Adela Olivarez.

"Deacon Lara said, "The mama monkey dances for the money. The papa monkey dances for the money, and the baby monkeys dance for the money. '

"The next day, Santos ran away and took some kind of pills.

We had to admit him to the hospital. "

Lara denied making the statement, though others in the congregation agreed that they heard it.

On April 13, attorney Pearson secured a temporary restraining order against Gracida and his diocese, San Antonio Archbishop Patrick Flores and the diocese in San Antonio, the last city where Garcia was seen. The order restrains the defendants from aiding Garcia in leaving the United States or Texas without giving the court 72 hours notice.

Adela Olivarez believes the order is too late.

"We think Father Garcia is gone," she said. "The diocese moved him away and, maybe, we'll never see him again.

"But, wherever he is, he's doing the same thing to some boy there. "


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