Pharr Police Claim Pe�a Failed to Handle Abuse Case Properly

By Roxana M. Popescu
The Monitor
June 15, 2002

PHARR � Bishop Raymundo Pena and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brownsville last year inappropriately handled a case of alleged sexual abuse involving a minor and a priest, an investigator with the Pharr Police Department contends.

Sgt. Javier Perez, of the Pharr Police Department, said the Diocese officials did not inform law enforcement officers as soon as they should have and then did not cooperate with a police investigation into the case of Father Basil Onyia, a former priest with the Diocese who was accused in 2001 of abusing a 16-year-old girl.

�Instead of contacting us, making us aware, we encountered obstacles,� Perez said, contending that delays allowed the priest time to flee the country.

Pena, however, said that the Diocese has cooperated and will continue to cooperate with police, and that any semblance of obstructing the investigation is due to a �misunderstanding.�

�I regret that there seems to be some misunderstanding,� the bishop said in a statement provided to The Monitor. �I am convinced that we have cooperated fully, using the services of our diocesan attorney as we do in all legal matters, and the documentation clearly reflects this. We are just as concerned about Father Basil�s whereabouts as is the Pharr Police Department, and we will continue to cooperate fully.�

Perez�s allegation that the Diocese did not cooperate with police follows a study which named Pena among 111 church leaders who allegedly either ignored or covered up information of sexual abuse of minors within the Roman Catholic Church.

According to results of the study, which appeared this week in the Dallas Morning News, Roman Catholic leaders in 111 of the nation�s 178 mainstream dioceses ignored warnings about suspicious behavior and allowed priests to continue to serve after diagnoses of sexual disorders, legal settlements and criminal convictions, and in some cases after the clergyman admitted the wrongdoing.

Perez cited two letters that he contends show that the church waited to inform police for more than a week after first learning of the sexual abuse allegations against Onyia.

In a letter from Pena to Onyia obtained by the Pharr Police Department and dated Feb 12, 2001, the bishop placed Onyia on �administrative leave � effective immediately,� and transferred him to Raymondville. Perez contends that is an indication that Pena knew of the abuse allegations on or before that date.

Then, in a letter dated Feb 20, 2001, the legal council of the Diocese informed Pharr police of the abuse allegations and the priest�s transfer to Raymondville.

These letters reveal an at least eight-day gap between when the bishop learned of the alleged abuse and when the Diocese�s legal counsel contacted police, Perez said. The timing allowed Onyia to flee the country and has stalled civil suits and criminal charges against him, Perez said.

�If we would have known that he was going to be transferred, we would have arrested him � in a heartbeat,� he said.

Furthermore, Perez said, the diocese was uncooperative throughout the investigation.

�In trying to locate the priest, we came on several obstacles,� Perez said.

The obstacles included �refusing to provide information, referring us to legal counsel instead of helping us, transferring him without making us aware of the location,� Perez said.

But the bottom line, Perez said, is that the case should have been referred earlier to civil authorities.

Records from the office of David Garza, the diocesan legal counsel, show that he informed police investigators of the abuse allegations on Feb. 13 � the day after the bishop learned about them � and followed up with a second phone conference on Feb. 15.

Father Robert Maher, vicar general of the Diocese and the person responsible for heading investigations of sexual abuse by priests or people affiliated with the church, added that Pena has been �assiduous� in dealing with allegations of abuse throughout his tenure.

Whenever allegations have come up, Pena has taken every step to respond properly to victims and notify the appropriate law enforcement authorities, Maher said.

�The bishop is showing himself willing to respond promptly and in a proper way� to any lawsuit or accusation of abuse, he said. .

�We don�t want any cover up of this, we don�t want any silence.�

The Dallas Morning News investigation found that leaders of every Catholic diocese in Texas � except El Paso and Beaumont � either ignored or covered up information about priests accused of or charged with sexual abuse.


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