Sexual Abuse Allegations Haven't Kept Priest off Job He's Denied Misconduct

By Brooks Egerton
Dallas Morning News
January 13, 2003

[One in an occasional series]

Dallas Catholic Diocese leaders insist that they have no priest on duty who has been credibly accused of sexually abusing anyone, child or adult.

How, then, do they explain the case of the Rev. Justin Lucio, who has long been assigned to run his own ministry for undocumented immigrants?

In the early 1990s, two immigrants testified that Father Lucio had used threats and promises to pressure them into intercourse. The priest admitted in a 1991 deposition that he had told people the young men were his nephews, although he is unrelated to them. And he acknowledged that he sometimes handled Latino parishioners' genitals - to help them, he said, with health concerns.

Bishop Charles Grahmann didn't know about Father Lucio's testimony until The Dallas Morning News asked about it, spokesman Bronson Havard said. "The documents will have to be studied," he said.

Yet the diocese was aware of the case in which Father Lucio was deposed. Other top church leaders, for example, were also compelled to testify. And the diocese's longtime attorney on sexual abuse cases has maintained records of the matter.

Mr. Havard said a priest's handling of parishioners' genitals is "not anything condoned or practiced by the Catholic Church." He said he wasn't sure how to interpret Father Lucio's testimony, which he read Friday.

The spokesman defended Bishop Grahmann's decision to keep the priest in ministry. "There's no cover-up here," Mr. Havard said.

The diocese has paid more than $ 35 million to settle cover-up lawsuits involving other clerics. But the Lucio case was initiated by the priest himself: He accused a lay leader of slander for telling the diocese about accusations of sexual and financial misconduct.

Bishop Grahmann thought that these allegations against the priest "were recanted and went nowhere," Mr. Havard said.

It was Father Lucio, though, who backed down: He dropped his suit and agreed never to refile it. He denied wrongdoing at the time and recently declined to be interviewed. So did Bishop Grahmann and the man chosen three years ago to succeed him, Coadjutor Bishop Joseph Galante.

Bishop Galante quit giving local interviews after incurring Bishop Grahmann's anger in November, when he took the rare step of publicly disagreeing with the diocesan leader. Bishop Galante told The News then that he could not persuade Bishop Grahmann to remove the head priest at Dallas' cathedral, despite allegations that the Rev. Ramon Alvarez grabbed the genitals of a man during a blessing.

Grahmann aides have said that Father Alvarez had "inappropriate," but consensual, contact with the man, and that the bishop handled the matter appropriately. Last week, Mr. Havard said Bishop Galante now "recognizes that Grahmann's decision is the policy." The diocese's written policy says that sexual misconduct, with children or adults, "will not be tolerated under any circumstances."

"You see what kind of influence I have," said Bishop Galante, a spokesman for the nation's bishops and one of their most vocal advocates for stricter sexual misconduct policies. "I'm keeping a very low profile."

The lawsuit's origins

The roots of Father Lucio's lawsuit reach to 1989, when lay leader Charles Wilson took two Mexican brothers to diocesan headquarters. Their accounts of sexual exploitation led to Father Lucio's removal from St. James Catholic Church, in east Oak Cliff.

The matter became public when Father Lucio said he had been treated unjustly and his supporters picketed, demanded his reinstatement and accused diocesan leaders of racism. The priest went on a well-publicized hunger strike and started the immigrant ministry, called Casita Maria, that he still runs today.

But media coverage dropped off after he filed his lawsuit against Mr. Wilson in 1990. Later that year, the diocese said the allegations against him were unsubstantiated and reassigned him to part-time work at another church.

Bishop Grahmann rescinded the transfer after the priest sometimes failed to show up to celebrate Mass, Mr. Havard said. He remains limited to nonparish ministry today, the spokesman said.

Asked why the priest would be assigned to work that the diocese doesn't supervise, Mr. Havard stressed Father Lucio's own wishes and strong support from some Hispanic leaders.

"We have to have pretty good cause to remove a priest" from all ministry, he said. Bishop Grahmann "made the right decision" about Father Lucio "based on what the diocese knew and had at its disposal at the time."

"The way out," Mr. Havard also said, "was to let him do his own thing."

Conflicting testimony

Father Lucio pursued his suit for two years, in the face of an aggressive defense that contradicted his testimony.

Both brothers testified that their sexual encounters with him began when they were at or near the age of consent in Texas, 17. The priest gave them shelter, sometimes paid them and sometimes threatened to turn them in to U.S. immigration authorities, they said.

One of the men swore that Father Lucio also offered to "fix our papers" so they could stay in the country legally. He said the priest had tried to get the brothers to lie in their depositions by offering them part of the money he hoped to win in the lawsuit.

"He told us if we win this thing, we're going to have a lot of money for everybody," the man testified. "If you want a house, just name the place, and I'll buy it for you."

By then, the man's brother had already recanted - but only temporarily. Shortly before filing the case, Father Lucio had obtained a rambling sworn statement from the younger brother, who said he had lied to diocesan officials because the priest fired him from his job at St. James. The young man had been living there with the priest.

Defense attorneys were not present to question the brother during his statement. He did not sign it and subsequently testified in a way that was consistent with his original statements to diocesan leaders.

Neither brother has ever pursued charges in the matter, sought compensation from the diocese or commented publicly. They are related to a man named Joe Granados, who helped Father Lucio start Casita Maria and still works there with him. As The News reported Sunday, the charity has provided an automobile for Mr. Granados' full-time personal use and has given him loans that have sometimes exceeded his annual salary.

An investigation by The News also showed that the ministry provides vehicles to Father Lucio and a 28-year-old immigrant employee from El Salvador. The two men pay $ 10 a month to live in a house Casita owns in DeSoto.

Question of culture?

In his deposition, Father Lucio initially said he didn't remember whether he had ever touched another man's genitals. Then, before acknowledging that he had, he said he couldn't answer a lawyer's question about the matter because "there's a lot of things that you, as an Anglo, do not take into consideration with our culture."

Asked to explain, he said that Hispanics with health concerns have no inhibitions about showing "what's wrong and what needs to be corrected "

"They simply go like this and they show you. And they say, look, what is - what is this?" he testified. "Yes, that's what my people do."

Experts on Hispanic ministry questioned that account. "I've never heard of that," said the Rev. Virgilio Elizondo, a nationally known priest who founded the Mexican American Cultural Center in San Antonio, which trains church workers from around the country.

A defense attorney also asked Father Lucio whether he had any medical training that would warrant his handling of parishioners' genitals. His response: "Are we - are we speaking the same language? I'm sorry, but when you say 'medical training,' be specific "

Asked to estimate how many parishioners had asked him to inspect their genitals, he answered: "Oh my dear sir. I have served more people than you in another lifetime put together. Probably the whole priesthood put together. Millions of people."

Prompted by his attorney, Father Lucio added that he was referring to service "in a general capacity."

Asked whether he was circumcised, Father Lucio said he didn't know what the term meant. Then he offered to expose himself to the defense attorney who was questioning him.

Mr. Havard said all priests should know, from their theological training, that circumcision "is a sign of a covenant with God."

One of the Mexican brothers testified in his deposition that he served as Father Lucio's driver on a vacation to Houston when the priest took another man, summoned from an escort service, to a motel room. He said he soon had to take Father Lucio to an emergency room for treatment of severe genital bleeding.

Father Lucio, however, testified that he had been celibate since becoming a priest and did not know the reason for the bleeding.

The defense also obtained sworn statements from two women who worked with Father Lucio at St. James.

Elvira Trevio, a former church secretary who also served on the parish council, said she once showed up at the rectory and saw a naked young man - not one of the Mexican brothers - walk from the bathroom to the priest's bedroom. Father Lucio occasionally had her write checks to young men she did not recognize, she said.

And former housekeeper Teresa Hernandez gave a sworn statement saying that she found a used condom in the priest's bedroom and Polaroids of naked young men.


The News' review of sworn written statements Father Lucio made during the lawsuit found several discrepancies regarding his education and career:

*He said he attended St. Paul Seminary from 1974 to 1978, but that Minnesota school said he was there from 1969 to 1972. He left without graduating, the school said.

*He said his priesthood was conferred between 1974 and 1978, but church records show he was ordained in 1972 by the Rev. Patrick Flores, who was an auxiliary bishop in San Antonio and is now archbishop there.

*He said that in 1978-79, he had a pastoral education internship at a Baptist hospital in San Antonio and was an assistant clinical supervisor. The hospital said its only record of Father Lucio indicated that he was a chaplain intern in 1972-73.

*He said he earned bachelor's and master's degrees from St. Louis University from 1970 to 1974. The university said he earned the degrees between 1965 and 1969.

According to the Official Catholic Directory, Father Lucio began work as a priest in 1972 as a member of the Conventual order of Franciscans and lived in San Antonio. In 1973, he worked for a few months at a parish in Carlsbad, N.M., and then returned to San Antonio.

The following year, the directory listed Father Lucio as being on a leave of absence from ministry. His name then vanished from the directory's national roll of priests for nearly a decade.

By 1980, Father Lucio had come to Dallas. He began working for the Dallas Housing Authority at an apartment complex on Cedar Springs Road. He quit that job after a little less than a year, the authority said.

His name reappeared in the Catholic directory in 1983, after he began working at the Dallas Diocese's immigration-assistance office. He was assigned to St. James about a year later.

Asked in his deposition whether he had left the priesthood for a time and lived in the public housing project, he responded: "I simply cannot answer a question of yours on a yes or no answer. I have been, will be for all eternity, a priest by holy order."

Under continued questioning, he said that no one could revoke his status as a priest - "not even God."


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