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Abuse charges roil heavily Catholic Puerto Rico

ARECIBO, Puerto Rico (AP) -- First, the Catholic Church announced it had defrocked six priests accused of sex abuse in the Puerto Rican town of Arecibo. Then, local prosecutors disclosed that at least 11 other priests on the island were under investigation for similar accusations.

Now, as U.S. authorities acknowledge that they, too, are looking into abuse allegations by priests on this devoutly Catholic island, many are reeling from revelations of abuse involving some of the U.S. territory's most beloved clerics.

Puerto Ricans had largely been spared the lurid accounts of sex abuse involving the Catholic Church, and many had come to believe they were immune. But Barbara Dorris, a director with the U.S.-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said the new reports mean it's likely the problem is much worse than previously imagined.

"In general, these things tend to snowball because victims are afraid to come forward," Dorris said. "If the priests have been on this island for a while, it probably means that it's dozens upon dozens of victims out there."

Puerto Rico Justice Secretary Cesar Miranda said last week that at least four dioceses are being investigated. He also warned he might file charges against church officials suspected of withholding information.

He described the situation as "truly scandalous."

"We are not going to rest," Miranda said. "We are going to capture them, we are going to process them and we are going to put them in jail."

Allegations of sex abuse by priests are not new here, but the latest wave of investigations has dwarfed anything seen on the island of 3.6 million people, more than 70 percent of whom identify themselves as Catholic.

"People want to believe in the specialness of the priests, in the power of the priests," said Richard Sipe, a California-based psychologist and former priest who is an expert on clergy sexual abuse. "The Latin American community is much slower in bringing charges against the priests. ...The priests themselves are held in greater esteem, and the culture is identified with the Catholic Church more closely."

On a recent Sunday morning in Arecibo, churchgoers streamed through the heavy wooden doors of the city's 17th century cathedral. A swell of voices soon joined the priest inside in prayer, while 44-year-old Jose Soto hurriedly walked past the Mass in the town's deserted streets.

"When you go in through those doors, it is supposed to be a spiritual, wholesome place," he said, adding that he once regularly attended Mass in the cathedral. "You don't know who you're listening to anymore ... It's like using the word of God for other purposes."

The wave of allegations began in late January with a series of reports in local media, primarily in the newspaper El Nuevo Dia.

In response, Arecibo Bishop Daniel Fernandez released a statement disclosing that since 2011 he had defrocked six priests accused of sex abuse, an unusually large number for a diocese with about 90 priests. Church officials said they have also provided counseling for at least one alleged victim and reparations in an unspecified number of cases across the island.

Last week, one of Arecibo's defrocked priests, Edwin Antonio Mercado Viera, was charged with committing lewd acts. The 53-year-old, who had been a popular figure in the parish, is accused of fondling the genitals of a 13-year-old altar boy in 2007.

Prosecutor Jose Capo Rivera said the bishop himself is "part of the investigation" due to accusations he committed lewd acts involving a minor. Fernandez has said he is innocent.

"Clearly, it's revenge for the decisions I've taken since the moment I assumed leadership of the diocese, where the situation that I found was not the most positive," he said in a written statement.

Agnes Poventud, an attorney for a man who says Fernandez molested him when he was child, told The Associated Press that federal agents recently interviewed her and her client. She declined to say when the alleged abuse occurred or how old her client was at the time, only to say he was a minor.

A federal official confirmed to the AP that U.S. authorities have requested information about alleged clergy abuse from the Puerto Rico Justice Department. The official agreed to discuss the case only if not quoted by name because the information was not yet public.

Further revelations have followed the Arecibo cases. The Diocese of Mayaguez, on Puerto Rico's west coast, said it has handled four cases of alleged sex abuse, the majority of them being reviewed by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which takes on such accusations.

In addition, San Juan Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves said prosecutors are investigating six alleged sex abuse cases in the diocese of Puerto Rico's capital. He said the accused priests have been suspended and the statute of limitation has expired in five cases.

Prosecutors also are investigating a sex abuse allegation in the Diocese of Caguas, Capo said.

Meanwhile, justice officials accuse the Arecibo diocese of withholding information and are fighting a lawsuit still pending in court that the diocese filed to keep secret the names of alleged victims to protect their confidentiality. Prosecutors assert the move is intended to protect the accused priests, a charge diocese attorney Frank Torres denies.

"The church has cooperated and has a policy of transparency, but that cooperation does not mean the church is free to violate the guarantees of confidentiality it has awarded the victims," Torres said in a phone interview.

Diocese officials in Puerto Rico say that the statute of limitations has expired in many cases, an argument that Florida-based lawyer Joseph Saunders said has been the church's first line of defense. He said many church officials argue they should have been sued when the alleged violations occurred.

"Nobody sued a bishop or a priest back then," he said. "There's an underlying fear of going to hell for suing the bishop."

Join the discussion

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pdbliz March 12 2014 at 10:19 AM

EVIL IS EVERYWHERE,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

Flag Reply +1 rate up
fourjwinds March 12 2014 at 1:02 PM

He said the accused priests have been suspended and the statute of limitation has expired in five cases."

But the destruction of the lives of others does not have an expiration date. That lasts a lifetime for the victim and their family.

" He said many church officials argue they should have been sued when the alleged violations occurred." Dirty PIGS!!

Flag Reply +3 rate up
VIPRLARES March 12 2014 at 10:02 AM

The go back centuries and they never acknowledge or did anything to protect the children.

Flag Reply +5 rate up
ricks1951f1 March 12 2014 at 9:24 AM

It never seems to end!

Flag Reply +1 rate up
kitchenman4u March 12 2014 at 12:28 PM

They were blinded by the darkness, not wanting to let any truth come to the light of day.
They were deluded, not recognizing that heinous crime, is different than sin and penance.
Bogus Hail Mary's, Phony Confessionals, Lame Excuses, Creepy Forgiveness, Rotten Rosaries.
All for the sick adult perpetrators, and their disgusting behavior and conduct.
A network built to protect Demented Godless " Priests" that allowed them to keep doing their
Never a genuine thought or care and concern for the real child victims.
As my mother would say, something is rotten in Denmark, and it ain't the cheese!
Reminds me of Watergate. Cover-up at any cost, lie, and always protect the big bosses!

Flag Reply +1 rate up
Bill March 12 2014 at 12:49 PM

Well not much can be done if statute of limitations has expired in many cases. And it is a serious thing suing a bishop. I just hope that people do not accuse others of abuse when it did not happen which is true is many cases from what I have learned. You know people after some fast cash. Thankfully God loves a sinner and His church is filled with them.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
austinlenten March 12 2014 at 9:32 AM

See this is sick....... just sick. These priests are looked upon more morally stable then others, but yet they continue to molest children. And they think they are going to Heaven? In the Bible it says that Jesus loves children, and these men think that the Lord does not see what they are doing. Okay, not only does the Catholic Church have an extremely dark history, but they continue to try to justify what they have done, and what they are doing now. These people have a special place in Hell for them, unless they truly repent.

Flag Reply +3 rate up
Escalonz March 12 2014 at 12:30 PM

the statute of limitation has expired in five cases............................That is an arbitrary decision by legislators who have no concept of the psychological damage done by these sick priest, The damage last a life time and so should the charges of child molestation do so also.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
acmeme March 12 2014 at 10:24 AM

Let the truth come out.

Flag Reply +2 rate up
Wayne Reed March 12 2014 at 11:56 AM

I was attending RICA in Dearborn Heights, MI when this sex abuse was first being reported. I asked a Nun, Sister Marie, about it. She gave me an answer that still sticks with me today - The Catholic Church is God's Church, but it is operated by human beings. I have known many fine priests, Father Paul, and several others and truly believe there are a lot of fine priests in the world. However, there are some bad priests and I think Pope Frances will see they are eliminated from the Church. As with any human that commits a crime, their punishment should be decided by the judical process of the nation they are serving in.

Flag Reply +4 rate up
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