Valley Not Exempt from Church Crisis Close to Home: Brownsville Diocese Named in Sexual Assault Claims

By Emma Perez-Trevino
Brownsville Herald
April 7, 2002

While the national focus has been on atrocious indiscretions of Roman Catholic priests located primarily on the East Coast, records here show the Rio Grande Valley�s Catholic diocese is facing its own set problems regarding priests and their behavior.

But like dioceses around the country, the Diocese of Brownsville and its attorneys say the formal complaints of misconduct and other challenges have no legal ground against the church and should not be in court. They say the church must be allowed to police itself.

Still, the local diocese has dealt with various accusations and has paid out-of-court settlements over the last few decades worth about $425,000, according to diocese officials. Others believe the diocese�s estimation is modest and may have paid out much more.

The Brownsville Diocese, headed by Bishop Raymundo Pena, is one of the largest in the state with approximately 800,000 Catholics in 100 parishes and missions in Cameron, Willacy, Starr and Hidalgo counties. It literally has dozens of priests criss-crossing the region.

Pena said now is a difficult time for the diocese and sought to reassure Catholics and parishioners.

�We offer assurance that by the formal policy of the Diocese of Brownsville, and by my personal pledge, we act immediately anytime an allegation of clergy misconduct is registered,� Pena said.

But in two weeks, the Brownsville Diocese will be in Hidalgo County District Court as the defendant in a case where a former Valley priest has been accused of sexually assaulting a minor on several occasions from January 2000 to February 2001. The diocese has said little about the accusations in relation to its operations and 34-year-old Father Basil Chukwuma Onyia. The diocese points to the separation of church and state in a civil lawsuit filed in April last year in a Hidalgo County District Court by the young girl and her mother against the diocese and Onyia.

�(The Constitution) mandates that government and religion remain separate and accordingly forbids the government from interfering with the right of hierarchical religious bodies to establish their own internal rules and regulations and create tribunals for adjudicating disputes over religious matters,� the diocese maintains.

Onyia disappeared last summer in the middle of a criminal investigation that the Pharr Police Department was conducting into the allegations.

Pharr police have not found Diocese of Brownsville officials, including the bishop, to be as cooperative.

�It�s been like hitting a brick wall,� Lt. Guadalupe Salinas said. �Church officials referred us to their legal counsel. That didn�t help anything.�

Investigators planned to send a letter directly to Pena asking if he has any information regarding Onyia�s whereabouts.

�The suspect was here when the investigation was going on but he left when he apparently got wind of it,� Salinas said.

And as sexual allegations against pedophile priests and cover-ups by their superiors surface from the East to West coasts, Pena pledged in a prepared statement issued during Holy Week that the diocese continues to do everything in its power to safeguard the well being and safety of children.

But Mission attorney Fernando Mancias � who represents the minor girl that accuses Onyia of assaulting her� claims that the diocese has and continues �� to cover up the incidents of priest sexual abuse of minors and prevent disclosure, prosecution and civil litigation.�

Mancias, with the Magallanes, Hinojosa and Mancias law firm, said the diocese has done this by denying the abuse, spoiling evidence, reassigning abusive priests, and applying religious coercion while breaching the trust and confidence of victims.

Mancias alleges that the diocese was negligent in hiring and allowing Onyia to remain as a parish priest at the Basilica de San Juan Shrine in San Juan and to later transfer him to Harlingen � when it knew or should have known of his sexual pedophilic propensities.

Onyia also served at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Harlingen.

The diocese states in court documents that Onyia was not transferred from San Juan to Harlingen because of sexual misconduct allegations.

�The transfer was made considering the needs of the (diocese) and where Father Onyia might best serve at that time,� court documents filed by the diocese state.

Mancias� clients are seeking monetary damages against the diocese and Onyia, but the amount is not noted in court documents.

The diocese, through attorneys David C. Garza of Brownsville and Edmundo O. Ramirez of McAllen, denies all the allegations, denies that it is liable for the alleged actions of another and counters that the case brought against it does not belong in court.

Presiding Judge Noe Gonzalez has set a hearing regarding the court�s jurisdiction for 8 a.m. April 19 in the Hidalgo County District Court in Edinburg.

In recent statements, Pena said that the diocese offers prayers for the victims and asks God�s mercy and forgiveness for the priests who failed to uphold the deep trust placed in them by God and by the people.

�We are equally saddened by the wound that has been inflicted on the Church by this scandal, especially in light of the fact that the number of priests who have fallen is small while the vast majority of priests have remained faithful to their exalted calling and who deserve the continued trust of the people,� Pena said.

When an allegation of clergy misconduct is registered, Pena said the diocese immediately reacts.

�We do all that we can to insure fairness to both the alleged victim and the accused,� Pena said. �I wish everyone to know that we periodically have training sessions with our priests about these matters, and have one scheduled in the near future.�

Furthermore, candidates for the priesthood are submitted to careful psychological screening, he said.

Devout Catholic and longtime resident of El Ranchito Francis Domanski�s respect for the Catholic Church and the clergy has been unwavering since she was a child and in these times of turmoil.

�A lot of kids make up things and it goes on down the line. Sometimes it�s true and sometimes it�s not. A priest might say something and people take it the wrong way. I still respect priests and the Church,� Domanski said.

While the church reels under a barrage of accusations, some reaching back decades, law enforcement officials say few, if any, incidents involving this type of abuse are ever reported.

�But I am sure there have been some instances of abuse but have not been fully investigated because in most cases, who is going to believe that a priest would touch a child in an inappropriate way?� Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra said.

�We have been in the dark ages as far as this kind of thing.�


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.