The Region || Removal of Priest Suspected of Having Child Porn Is Sought
Catholic Officials Defend Decision to Keep Santa Ana Cleric, Saying Their Zero-Tolerance Policy Doesn't Apply. the FBI May Investigate the Case

By William Lobdell and Christine Hanley
Los Angeles Times
July 26, 2003

Nearly two years after police recommended a Santa Ana priest be charged with possession of child pornography, the cleric remains in ministry at a parish that has an elementary school on its grounds.

Angry at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange's handling of the sexual misconduct case, former church employee Fernando Guido, who found the pornography in 2001 on a laptop computer formerly owned by Father Cesar Salazar, said he met with FBI officials this month and they promised to investigate whether federal charges could be brought against the cleric.

Guido's attorney, Michael J. Sundstedt, said the FBI told him an investigation had been launched. An FBI spokeswoman said the bureau doesn't comment on whether inquiries are underway.

Salazar could not be reached for comment Friday.

The news raises further questions about enforcement of the diocese's zero-tolerance policy, under which any credible allegation of sexual abuse will result in immediate dismissal of any priest or lay employee.

The Times reported this week that a choir director convicted 18 years ago of lewd contact with a minor was allowed to continue working at three parishes after a new fingerprinting policy uncovered his criminal record in April. The director was fired Wednesday after a reporter's inquiry.

Church officials said they've been hampered in cases where priests were suspected of viewing child pornography because that kind of misconduct doesn't fall within their zero-tolerance guidelines for sexual abuse.

In a written statement this week that did not name Salazar, diocese officials said the priest "did not admit to nor was he found to have engaged in conduct that would warrant removal from ministry" under the church's zero-tolerance policy.

Father Michael McKiernan, director of clergy personnel and secretary to Bishop Tod D. Brown, told Guido in an e-mail that zero tolerance refers only to those who have "engaged in" molestation.

In their statement this week, church officials said they gave Salazar a psychological evaluation, counseling and placed him in "restrictive ministry."

His assignment, however, differs little from that of other priests. Salazar is one of two priests assigned to work at St. Joseph Church, a parish with 2,000 families in Santa Ana, and one of four who live in the rectory.

Salazar still celebrates Mass with the assistance of altar boys and hears confessions at the church, whose parishioners haven't been told of the priest's restricted status, according to diocesan officials. He is not allowed to interact with the children at the neighboring parochial school, which has about 275 students from kindergarten to eighth grade.

Guido said he stumbled upon the pornographic images of children, which police said numbered about 100, while testing a used laptop computer that a friend had bought in September 2001.

Though Salazar was the original owner of the computer, according to a diocesan statement, it had subsequently been in the possession of Guido's friend and someone else.

Santa Ana Police Sgt. Baltazar De La Riva said the diocese reported the find after the pictures were discovered.

Officers conducted an investigation that included interviews with witnesses and a computer analysis.

Detectives submitted their report to the Orange County district attorney's office in October 2001, recommending that Salazar be charged with felony possession of child pornography, De La Riva said.

The next day, prosecutors rejected the case for lack of evidence. Church officials said prosecutors believed it would be difficult to prove which of the computer's three owners was responsible for the pornography. District attorney's officials could not be reached Friday for comment.

Guido said he waited for more than a year in hopes that the church would remove the priest.

"I just want him removed from active ministry so he doesn't have access to other children," said Guido, a 28-year-old real estate agent who worked for the diocese as a lay employee until last year.

This month, out of frustration, Guido went to the FBI. Possession of child pornography downloaded from the Internet is a crime that can be prosecuted by state and federal authorities.

Although the statute of limitations has expired for state prosecution, federal authorities have five years in which to prosecute.

CORRECTION-DATE: July 29, 2003

CORRECTION: Child pornography -- An article Saturday in the California section on how the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange handled a complaint about Father Cesar Salazar incorrectly reported that Santa Ana police recommended that he face a felony charge of possessing child pornography. The charge, which prosecutors declined to file, would have been a misdemeanor.


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