Group asks DA to extradite priest suspected of molesting child

By James Osborne
The Monitor
December 29, 2004

The Hidalgo County district attorney's office underwent renewed criticism Tuesday for its handling of sexual abuse cases involving priests from the Diocese of Brownsville.

The local chapter of Call to Action, a Chicago-based group of self-described progressive Catholics, staged a press conference outside the Hidalgo County courthouse calling for District Attorney Rene Guerra to extradite the Rev. Basil Onyia, the Nigerian priest accused of sexually abusing a mentally retarded teenage girl in San Juan. Onyia fled to his native Nigeria in 2001 shortly after a warrant was issued for his arrest by the Pharr Police Department.

The girl's family filed a lawsuit against the diocese, which was settled out of court.

"We� are here to express our continuing outrage and dissatisfaction with the lack of efforts to prosecute and hold perpetrators of several sexual abuse and sexual exploitation cases," said CTA President David Saavedra in a written statement.

"For too long, church officials have stonewalled the active pursuit of perpetrators and it seems they have been aided by the DA's reluctance to confront church officials."

Guerra said his office has done as much as it can to bring Onyia back to Hidalgo County. He presented a letter dated Feb. 21, 2003, in which a member of his staff requested the FBI's help in tracking down the priest. Guerra said agents contacted his office three weeks ago about Onyia and now he is in the process of filing paperwork with the U.S. Department of Justice to seek his extradition from Nigeria.

"It's not my job to look; it's to request and I've done that," Guerra said.

But critics argue he hasn't done nearly enough.

On Dec. 6 The Dallas Morning News reported Onyia was working prominently in a Nigerian parish where he agreed to be interviewed by the paper. In that same article Guerra is reported as saying, "You tell me I'm going to find a guy who can blend in in Nigeria, who I don't suspect is a practicing Catholic priest over there? Go find him for me and I'll bring the sucker back."

For the CTA, the ease in which the newspaper found Onyia suggests that Guerra hasn't pushed the search hard enough.

"My reading is he's in line with the (diocese's) bishop (Raymundo Pena) and the Catholic Church. People start to wonder — I know I have — how much his lack of motivation is connected with that," Saavedra said.

"If The Dallas Morning News could locate this priest in Africa it can't be that difficult."

Guerra said he is a practicing Catholic but doesn't personally know Pe�a, the head of the Brownsville diocese, only having met him once following a prayer service.

Pe�a himself fell under fire earlier this year for not releasing the names of the seven priests from the diocese accused of sexually abusing children. The number was come upon as part of a nationwide study to gauge the extent on sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. The diocese reported none of the priests was still practicing in the area, but the CTA continues to push for greater transparency.

"We've been requesting this information for a year. They say there's no legal requirement, and that's true. But other dioceses have done it in the interest of helping the community heal," Saavedra said.


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