Priest Agrees to Face Charges in California

By Tina A. Brown
Hartford Courant
February 20, 2002

A California priest, whose church sent him to Hartford for treatment as a pedophile, agreed Tuesday to face allegations in central California that he molested a teenage parishioner in the small city of Turlock, Calif.

The Rev. Oscar A. Pelaez, 35, who served four Roman Catholic parishes in central California, became the target of a police investigation after the alleged victim, a teenaged boy, reported being troubled and contemplating suicide. The victim told his family about the sexual misconduct by the priest, and the relatives filed a formal complaint last November with Pelaez' superior, Msgr. Richard Ryan, head of the Stockton, California diocese, according to court records obtained Tuesday in Hartford Superior Court.

Pelaez was transferred from Sacred Heart Church in Turlock to the Cathedral of Annunciation in Stockton, where court records show he admitted the charge during a confrontration with Ryan.Police said the victim was a parishioner at Sacred Heart Church in Turlock.

"Pelaez admitted to having molested the victim over a period of several years but gave the monsignor the impression that the incidents were few spread over several years," court records show.

Ryan placed Pelaez, a Colombian national, on leave and sent him to the Institute of Living in Hartford, to "see if he would be diagnosed as a pedophile," court records shows.

The incident was not reported to police in Turlock by the diocese until January and it was later concluded that the abuse spanned the period from May 1998 to May 2000, while Pelaez was an active assistant priest in the diocese. Turlock is a city in the heart of Central Valley and has a population of 57,000 people.

Pelaez was arrested on Saturday in Hartford on a charge of being a fugitive from justice. During a hearing Tuesday morning in Hartford Superior Court, Pelaez, who was dressed casually in a black leather jacket and khaki pants, spoke softly to Superior Court Judge Carl Taylor and Public Defender Ross Delaney with the help of a Spanish language interpreter.

Taylor drew rumblings and disdain from spectators in the cramped Hartford courtroom when he announced the charges against Pelaez. Reading from the fugitive warrant, Taylor said, Pelaez is accused of 100 counts of oral copulation with a person under age 16; 50 counts of oral copulation of a person under age 18; 100 counts of sodomy with a person under age 16; and 50 counts of sodomy with a person under age 18.

After the hearing Tuesday, Rosemary Howser, a spokeswoman for the Turlock Police Department, said that while investigators there initially planned to charge Pelaez with more than 100 counts of sexual molestation, the Stanislaus County District Attorney Office signed an arrest warrant on Feb. 13, charging Pelaez with 13 counts of child molestation. Those charges include counts of sodomy and oral copulation.

Howser said those charges are based upon specific allegations, in which the victim can pinpoint a date and location of the alleged abuse. If convicted of the 13 counts, Pelaez could face up to 78 years in prison. The investigation is continuing, she said.

In Hartford, Pelaez agreed not to fight extradition to answer those charges in California. Taylor set bail for Pelaez at $500,000 and he was held in protective custody. California officials are expected to pick him up within the next two weeks.

The Institute of Living declined Tuesday to comment specifically about any of its patients.

Pelaez is believed to have been a patient in the Institute's Programs for Professionals, which provides voluntarily group therapy for a variety of ailments, including depression and bio-polar disorder and treats professionals with sexual problems. The overall program, which serves up to 250 people per year, focuses on dealing with professionals with problems. It also offers a specialized program for clergy and religious leaders -- as many as 50 annually are treated for addiction or sexual problems.

"This isn't a place where people hide out," said Heidi McCloskey, program director of the nationally recognized professionals program. "This is a place where people work and get treatment."

This story includes a report from the Turlock Journal.


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