Youth Ministry Priest Accused

By Steve Urbon
August 22, 2003

A young Roman Catholic priest at a Seekonk parish — who also heads the Diocese of Fall River's Youth Ministry Office — has been removed from his duties pending an investigation of "inappropriate conduct" with two minors, the diocese said yesterday.

The Rev. Hernando Herrera, who is in his mid-30s and who has been a priest for four years, is the first priest to be disciplined by Bishop George W. Coleman, who assumed leadership of the Fall River Diocese late last month.

The Rev. Herrera has been placed in a "non-parish setting" pending the findings from the investigation, the diocese said. He had been serving at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Seekonk.

Diocese spokesman John Kearns said he knew nothing of the details of the allegations, including either the age or gender of the minors involved, except that they involve recent events. The accusation was brought to the attention of the bishop on Friday, Aug. 15, the same day a 51A child abuse complaint was filed with the Massachusetts Department of Social Services.

The diocese did not say who filed the complaint, although the abuse policies in place for the past decade call for civil authorities to be notified of allegations.

DSS spokeswoman Denise Monteiro confirmed that the two cases are being reviewed by a special investigations unit, but she would reveal no details.

Assistant Bristol County District Attorney Gerald T. FitzGerald said that office has heard no report from DSS on the allegation. If DSS finds there is substance to the allegations, the procedure is to forward the case to the district attorney, he said.

Bishop Coleman met Tuesday with members of the Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish council and other parish representatives to discuss the case.

"These matters weigh heavily on us and I know the terrible impact that they can have on the youngsters involved and on the life of the parish," said Bishop Coleman in a letter to be read Sunday from the pulpit during all Masses at the church.

The bishop said it is "important that we address this issue forthrightly," and added that a team of social workers will be available after Masses this weekend for anyone who wishes to discuss the matter.

The Rev. Herrera's job as the director of the Youth Ministry was largely organizational, Mr. Kearns said. "They coordinate diocesan functions like World Youth Day. They try to support parishes who want to get a youth ministry going, and they provide training for parishes. They also publish a newsletter," he said.

Mr. Kearns said he did not know whether the accusations involved the Youth Ministry work or the Rev. Herrera's job as parochial vicar — the assistant to pastor Rev. George E. Harrison, at Mount Carmel.

The Rev. Herrera's case will be handled using the system and policy set in place by Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley of Boston, who was transferred from Fall River to Palm Beach, Fla., last fall.

Mr. Kearns said the diocese will await the DSS report, which should take several days, and then convene its review board to decide what action to take, if any. The board consists of one lay person, an expert in social services, an adult victim of clergy abuse, a parent of a victim, a civil lawyer and a canon lawyer.

The Rev. Herrera may retain his own civil lawyer, as well as a canon lawyer, should one be necessary, said Mr. Kearns, adding that it is early in the process and canon lawyers are not yet involved. The Rev. Herrera, a Virginia native, is remaining within the diocese during the review.

The priest has held the top job at the Youth Ministry since June 2002. He was ordained in 1998 after serving as a deacon at St. Mary Cathedral in Fall River, and began serving at the Seekonk parish in 1999.


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