• Wed. Jan 27th, 2021

‘He will be away from children’: Houston-area priest pleads guilty to child indecency charges

A Houston-area priest has pleaded guilty to child indecency charges in a case that has put a focus on the archdiocese of Galveston-Houston and its failures over the handling of sexual abuse cases.

The Rev. Manuel La Rosa-Lopez, 62, pleaded guilty to two out of five charges of indecency with a child Nov. 17, as part of an agreement with the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office. He faces 10 years in prison in the case which deals with allegations that he molested two teens more than 20 years ago after gaining the trust of their families; his sentencing is Dec. 16.

La Rosa-Lopez avoided a possible 20-year sentence with the guilty plea.

“We offered him to plead guilty on two of the greater charges, which were second-degree felonies, indecency with a child,” Montgomery County chief prosecutor Nancy Hebert told Noticias Telemundo Investiga. “In exchange for that plea, we’re dismissing the other three charges.”

The allegations involve the two victims, identified in court documents under the pseudonyms John Doe and Jane Doe.

The two plaintiffs claim that La Rosa-Lopez abused them in the late 1990s and the early 2000s when he was a priest at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Conroe, Texas. One is a Latino man who now lives in Washington State and the other a woman who currently lives in Texas.

‘A sense of justice’

In a statement, the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston said: “This was a personal decision made by Fr. Manuel after careful reflection and consultation with his attorney. By pleading guilty to 2 of the charges, Father Manuel will accept the punishment that awaits him.”

“It is our fervent prayer that all persons hurt by sexual abuse, and their families, will find healing and peace, and we certainly hope that is the case for all those impacted by today’s decision.”

La Rosa-Lopez was arrested in 2018 when he was a pastor at St. John Fisher Catholic Church in the Houston suburb of Richmond.

There were three other charges against La Rosa-Lopez that were dismissed as part of the plea agreement. One of them would have been child indecency in the third degree.

One of the alleged victims whose charges were dismissed spoke to Noticias Telemundo Investiga. Identifying himself as J instead of with his full name, he said the priest’s upcoming sentence gives him a sense of justice, as well as “hope that this institution will change the way it does things.”

According to J’s complaint, when he was 15 years old, La Rosa-Lopez forced him to look at his private parts inside the confessional.

“What happened to me in the confessional happened and then I left and never told anyone, until a little over 15 years later,” he told Telemundo.

“These sexual accusations are so normal, so regular, that the church sets aside an amount of money to hire lawyers, to not defend these priests,” he said. “I would like to see the church focus those funds and resources towards helping victims.”

‘He will be away from children’

Tahira Merritt, the attorney for John Doe and Jane Doe, said the upcoming sentence is not long enough, but “at least he will be away from children when he’s incarcerated and will be a lifetime sex offender and registered as a lifetime sex offender.”

La Rosa-Lopez’s attorney, Wendell Odom, said it was not an easy decision for his client.

“This is unfortunate. It happened many years ago and he’s just happy to have closure and get this over with,” Odom said.

The criminal process against this high-ranking Hispanic priest has once again put a focus on the archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, one of the largest and most influential ecclesiastical provinces in the country.

In February 2020, the two sexual abuse victims — John and Jane Doe — filed a civil lawsuit against the archdiocese and the Vatican alleging a cover-up. On that occasion, the Catholic Church agreed to pay compensation to the plaintiffs to avoid the judicial process.

For Eduardo López, a spokesperson for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), the imminent conviction of La Rosa-Lopez is a personal satisfaction, since 47 years ago he was abused by a priest.

“This is a day that I will never forget, because we are speaking out and fighting to [have] a little bit of justice for our victims of sexual abuse,” López said.

López advises sexual abuse victims to seek professional support and go to the authorities instead of church officials.

They trusted their pastor

La Rosa-Lopez gained the trust of the families of the alleged victims, court documents show.

In the case of John Doe, the pastor participated in family events and became a reference for the young man. Later, that trust turned into “sexual abuse, assault and exploitation,” according to the plaintiff’s testimony. On one occasion, La Rosa-Lopez prevented the young man from leaving the rectory and sexually assaulted him, the document details.

In the case of Jane Doe, the pastor was her confessor. The young woman described in a diary how the priest touched her private parts inside the Church of the Sacred Heart after a theater performance, “The Passion of the Christ.” She said she believed she was in a loving relationship with the priest.

The young woman’s father discovered her diary, in which she described her secret encounters with La Rosa-Lopez and, alarmed, notified the superiors of the parish. Soon after, the family learned that La Rosa-Lopez had been transferred to another parish and years later, in 2010, they discovered that the priest had been promoted to a larger parish in Richmond, Texas. The young woman, now an adult, went to meet with the head of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, to ask for an explanation.

DiNardo, according to the plaintiff, told her that La Rosa-Lopez had been sent to a mental institution and consequently assigned an administrative position where he would not have contact with minors.

But over the next eight years, La Rosa-Lopez worked his way up the ranks of the archdiocese until DiNardo entrusted him with the position of Episcopal vicar for Hispanics until 2018, when the alleged victims sued the priest for sexual abuse and the police issued an arrest warrant.

That same week, DiNardo was in Rome to discuss with Pope Francis the scandal of child abuse in the Catholic Church.

What’s Next?

Following investigations by Montgomery County prosecutors, there may be more areas of investigation regarding the Galveston-Houston archdiocese.

“We did compile a list of possible victims that we received from some of the documents that were seized [from the archdiocesan offices],” prosecutor Hebert said, clarifying they are outside her jurisdiction.

Hebert said she has sent the list along with the relevant files to the Texas Attorney General’s Office, so that it can initiate its own investigations or turn them over to the appropriate authorities.

An earlier version of this story was originally published in Noticias Telemundo.

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