Many Catholic Priests Credibly Accused moved abroad with Church’s Help

(July 7, 2020) The Catholic Church allowed more than 50 priests credibly accused of sexual abuse to move outside the U.S., where some were then accused of abusing other children in other parishes. A story jointly researched and published by Pro Publica and the Houston Chronicle uncovered the subterfuge.

One alleged abuser was the Rev. Jeffrey David Newell, whom the church still allows to access children. Newell has continued to serve as a priest in Mexico despite being accused of sexually abusing a teenager in the U.S. The Rev. Newell is typical of many credibly accused priests whom the church has quietly moved into other countries.

How the Catholic Church Shielded Credibly Accused Priests

Pro Publica and the Houston Chronicle detail the story of the Rev. Jose Antonio Pinal, who arrived as a young priest from Mexico. He landed in his first parish in rural Northern California in 1980, where he befriended the Torres family. They had also come from Mexico. Pinal helped the Torres’ fill out an application for food stamps, then became a dinner guest. He took the Torres’ children to theme parks and on road trips along the Pacific coast. He encouraged 15-year-old Ricardo Torres to become an altar boy.

Ricardo Torres now says that in Pinal’s quarters at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Gridley, the 30-year-old priest gave him alcohol, showed him adult movies, then groped and raped him. Mr. Torres said that he told another priest in 1989; and the family was assured by diocese lawyers that Pinal would not be allowed continued access to children.

But it wasn’t until thirty years later, in the spring of 2019, that the Diocese of Sacramento put Pinal’s name on its list of credibly accused priests. The list included five allegations of sexual abuse against Pinal dating to the late 1980s.

Pinal had “fled to Mexico,” the list said, and the diocese had prohibited him from performing priestly work in public in the 20 counties that make up the diocese. However, the ProPublica / Houston Chronicle investigation shows that the Catholic Church allowed dozens of accused priests — including Pinal — to serve abroad in priest roles after they were credibly accused of abuse in the United States.

Church helped Abusers escape to Ireland, Nigeria, the Phillipines

ProPublica and the Chronicle analyzed lists published by 52 U.S. dioceses. The lists encompassed the top 30 in terms of the number of credibly accused living clergy and those located in states along the U.S.-Mexico border. Reporters found that the church allowed 51 clergymen accused of abuse in the U.S. to escape accountability and go on to work as priests in other countries — such as Ireland, Nigeria, the Philippines.

At least 40 accused priests had worked in U.S. states along the southern border, including 11 in Texas. Mexico was the most common destination. At least 21 credibly accused clergy found refuge there.

A reporter found Pinal through social media. He lives in Cuernavaca, about 55 miles south of Mexico City.

In an interview at his home and in a subsequent series of email exchanges, Pinal repeatedly denied sexually abusing Torres or that he had “fled” California. In some of the emails, however, he referred to what “happened” between him and Torres. In one email about a trip he took with Ricardo Torres, Pinal said, “It was screwed up, but whatever happened was consensual.”

Just months after the California allegations in 1989, Pinal was allowed to resume priest work. He ministered in indigenous villages in and around Tepoztlán, a small town near Mexico City known for archaeological sites. He also served for decades in parishes in the Diocese of Cuernavaca.

Now 68, Pinal ministers from his home, where he has letters showing the church in Sacramento kept him on the payroll as it helped him find a new assignment. Pinal enjoyed a friendly correspondence with the then-Sacramento bishop and officials in charge of Hispanic ministry. In the months after the allegations, they advised him to work in Mexico for a “long period (5-6 years)” before returning to the states. Letters from the bishop were warmly signed “con cariño,” or with affection.

Failure of Judgment, Betrayal of Trust

“This was a grave failure of judgment and a betrayal of trust,” the current Sacramento bishop, Jaime Soto, said after correspondence between his predecessor and Pinal was released to Mr. Torres’ attorney through litigation. “The safety of children is our highest priority. In 1989, those in leadership failed. (I) must own and atone for this.”

After being contacted by reporters, the Diocese of Sacramento acknowledged that the characterization that Pinal “fled” to Mexico is incorrect. In recent days, the diocese revised the list to “more accurately reflect the circumstances of his 1989 departure.”

Since 2018, many Catholic dioceses and religious orders in the U.S., including Sacramento, have released lists of clergy deemed credibly accused of sexually abusing children. Others updated and expanded lists they had already made public. For the church, the wave of disclosures has been a belated reckoning with the extent of the sexual abuse crisis that was exposed two decades ago.

But the 178 lists made public as of January 2020 and compiled into a searchable database by ProPublica revealed a web of incomplete and often inconsistent information.

Church Leaders Continued Failure and Dishonesty

Often the lists didn’t specify a clergyman’s current status and location. And while dioceses frequently claim to know nothing about a priest’s whereabouts, reporters with ProPublica and the Chronicle found them on church websites, in religious publications, on social media sites. Church leaders often failed to report allegations to police, to pursue permanent restrictions within the church, to heed or offer warnings about priests facing allegations. In at least four cases, church leaders helped priests’ move abroad.

The omissions, inconsistencies and other shortcomings undercut the church’s professed desire to repair its relationship with millions of disaffected Catholics.

“Everything church leaders do that fails the test of transparency undermines any level of trust they’re trying to build, or that they say they’re trying to build,” said David Matthews, whose law firm represents more than 100 victims of priest abuse.