Victoria police open sex assault investigation into Texas priest

Investigations

VICTORIA, Texas (KXAN) – On the one-year anniversary of Texas dioceses publishing lists of clergy members accused of abuse allegations against children, Victoria police are investigating a Houston priest.

A woman filed a criminal complaint against the priest on Jan. 22, accusing the priest of touching her then-10-year-old daughter during a November 2018 confession session inside Nazareth Academy, a Catholic school in Victoria, Texas.

We are not naming the priest because he has not been charged with a crime and has not been named on any dioceses’ list of credibly accused clergy members.

The priest was originally ordained into the Galveston-Houston Diocese.

Victoria Police confirmed an investigation into new allegations concerning a priest who provided confessional lessons at this Catholic school in 2018.
Victoria Police confirmed an investigation into new allegations concerning a priest who provided confessional lessons at this Catholic school in 2018.

The priest worked in the Victoria Diocese under contract assignment out of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, according to the Victoria Diocese. His duties included work at the Sister of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament convent in town and he was assigned to Nazareth Academy to “…hear confessions of students a couple of hours in one grade level one day,” said Sister Evelyn Korenek, the principal of Nazareth Academy, which is owned by the convent in Victoria.

The incident in the confessional happened Nov. 20, 2018, according to Amber Moreno. Moreno is the accuser’s mother.

Moreno told KXAN she originally reported the priest to the school’s administration after her daughter came home complaining of neck pain. The girl told her mother the priest forcefully pulled her head toward his crotch during the confession.

“…it was determined that the elements of a crime were not met; therefore, the case was closed.”

David Brogger, Victoria PD Public Information Officer

Moreno reported the Nov. 20 incident to Victoria Police. VPD launched a two-day investigation before closing the case, the incident report shows. The department’s records indicate investigators never questioned the priest during the investigation.

“The report you are referring to was reviewed by detectives with the Victoria Police Department Criminal Investigation Division, at which time it was determined that the elements of a crime were not met; therefore, the case was closed,” VPD’s Public Information Officer David Brogger wrote to KXAN in an emailed statement.

“I believe that it was a sexually-charged physical assault,” Moreno told KXAN in a Jan. 16 interview. “But there is no way that I can prove that the school chose to leave my daughter alone with this man.”

The Galveston-Houston Archdiocese would not agree to an interview, but provided a statement to KXAN, indicating its awareness of some allegation against this particular priest.

“To be politically correct when I speak of this, I always say that she was physically assaulted in a sexually suggestive way because I can’t prove what his thoughts were or why he did — he grabbed her that way and put her head where he was aiming her head at,” Moreno said.

The school initially apologized, Moreno told KXAN and promised to “ban” the priest from Nazareth Academy. Within months, the priest was no longer working in the Victoria Diocese.

The reason remains a mystery to Moreno and her family.

‘I didn’t think you’d believe me’

On Jan. 22 Moreno said her daughter broke down and told her more about what happened inside the confessional. The pair were getting ready for school when Moreno said a conversation about the priest started and her daughter began crying.

Moreno said her daughter told her she was alone with the priest inside the confession session when he pulled her skort down and touched her inappropriately.

The priest never said anything during the encounter, Moreno said her daughter recalled.

Amber Moreno told KXAN that on Jan. 22, 2020 her daughter disclosed more information about the November 2018 confession encounter with the priest. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

Moreno said she asked her daughter why she didn’t disclose the information before now. To that, the girl responded, “I didn’t think you’d believe me,” according to Moreno.

The girl also told her mother she was afraid to tell the whole story when it happened in November 2018 because the girl wanted to continue attending Nazareth Academy “because she loved going there,” Moreno said. When her daughter first reported the assault, Moreno said she became angry and demanded an investigation by the school’s administration.

Moreno believes her own reaction kept her daughter from telling her the full details of what happened in November 2018.

Moreno took her daughter to the Victoria Police Department after school on Jan. 22 to report the new details. The department opened an investigation and ordered the girl to undergo a forensic interview, which happened earlier this week.

The police investigation is pending.

Where is this priest?

Standing over thousands of pages of Catholic directories, Amber Moreno detailed what she’s been up to from the second her daughter accused the priest of touching her in November 2018.

“The first thing I always do is go to the very back of the book to look up his last name, to see where he was that year,” Moreno said as she pulled down one of the directories from the stack. She’s gathered less than half the directories between 2000 and 2019.

The Catholic Church publishes official directories each year. The directories tell where every ordained priest in the United States is assigned during a given year. The directory shows the year the priest was ordained, the diocese of the assignment and the church facility the priest is assigned.

She’s purchased the eight volumes online, including some from online auction sites. The prices range from $100 to one — a 2017 edition — priced at $7,000 on Ebay.

Moreno bought the books because she’s spent hundreds of hours working to find where the priest worked and where he is today.

The priest, who was ordained in around 20 years ago, doesn’t appear in the official directory until 2001. That year, the directory shows his assignment as a church in Houston.

The Church has not provided a public accounting for the priest since at least 2015. His name was not included in the 2018 edition despite the fact he was working in the Diocese of Victoria. In reviewing the 2000, 2005, 2007, 2012, 2013, 2016, 2017 and 2018 editions—which are the directories we had copies of for this investigation — the priest’s name is never listed as an ordained priest anywhere in the country.

Out of the editions KXAN has access to, the priest is listed only in the 2001 and 2006 directories.  

“Do you know where this priest is today?” KXAN investigator Jody Barr asked Moreno.

“I have no idea. And as far as I know, no one does,” Moreno said. “And I encounter quite a few people within the community, within my profession. And everybody says that he just disappeared in the middle of the night. He was there when they went to bed one night and they woke up the next day and he was gone.”

In an emailed statement to KXAN, Korenek confirmed the priest was no longer employed inside the Diocese of Victoria and that something happened which caused the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston to strip him of his ability to provide religious services for the church.

“He (the priest) had the faculties of the Diocese of Victoria, which enabled him to conduct ministry in our diocese, but he never had a canonical assignment with us.  He was an employee of the sisters of the IWBS. When his incardinating archdiocese revoked his faculties, the Diocese of Victoria likewise revoked his faculties in our diocese, which meant he could no longer function as a priest in the Diocese of Victoria. Consequently, he was terminated by the Sisters of the IWBS,” Korenek wrote in a Jan. 18 email to KXAN.

The Nazareth Academy Catholic School in Victoria is where Amber Moreno told Victoria Police her daughter was sexually assaulted by a priest during a November 2018 confession session. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

Korenek referred KXAN to the Galveston-Houston Diocese when asked questions concerning the dates the priest worked in Victoria. She confirmed the priest is still a member of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

Korenek told KXAN she did not know what the priest was doing or where he is assigned today.

KXAN was able to contact the priest by phone during our investigation. He would not answer questions concerning the allegations against him stemming from the Nov. 20, 2018 incident, or respond to whether any other allegations were factored into his diocese’s decision to revoke his priest privileges.

Nazareth Academy is owned by the Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament convent in Victoria. Public records show the priest’s drivers license contained the convent’s address at one point. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

“I’m sorry but you need to contact the director of communications of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston,” the priest told KXAN investigator Jody Barr by phone on Jan. 22. We disclosed the specific allegations to him, but he declined to provide comment.

“That’s the only thing I can tell you, I’m sorry,” the priest said.

Galveston-Houston Archbishop, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, never responded to multiple questions posed by KXAN to his official church email address. DiNardo’s press office initially declined to provide a statement concerning the priest, but ultimately provided one after KXAN contacted the priest by phone.

“[The priest] denies the allegations made against him; but the Archdiocese will confirm that, in accord[sic] with Archdiocesan protocols, [the priest] is not in active ministry while this matter is pending. If contacted, the Archdiocese will fully cooperate with any law enforcement investigation as we take each allegation of this nature very seriously,” spokesman Jonah Dycus wrote in a Jan. 22 email to KXAN.

Galveston-Houston Diocese under investigation

Armed with four search warrants on Nov. 28, 2018, state and federal agents walked through the doors of four separate buildings that belong to the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese.

One of those buildings was the headquarters of the diocese — and the offices of Cardinal Daniel DiNardo.

DiNardo has served in the diocese since 2004 and became Archbishop of the Galveston-Houston Diocese in 2006, according to DiNardo’s online biography. In 2016, DiNardo was elected as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

DiNardo represented the entire United States Catholic delegation during a trip to the Vatican and during annual gatherings of the USCCB in Baltimore. Some of those meetings dealt specifically with the way the Church has dealt with child sex abuse cases over the years.

DiNardo is also leading the U.S. Catholic Church’s response to the sexual abuse of children. Just 16 days after DiNardo presided over a USCCB meeting in Baltimore in 2018, state and federal agents were on his office doorstep, serving DiNardo’s organization with search warrants.  

Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon had court orders to take anything he thought could contain evidence of child sexual abuse — or the attempt to cover it up. The search warrants allowed Ligon and his agents to take files, computers, discs and hard drives.

Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon is currently leading the prosecution of Manual LaRosa-Lopez, a Conroe, TX priest accused of fondling two teens (AP Photo/ The Courier, Michael Minasi)
Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon speaks to the media after Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson pleaded no contest to an assault charge Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014, in Conroe, Texas. Adrian Peterson avoided jail time on Tuesday in a plea agreement reached with prosecutors to resolve his child abuse case.(AP Photo/ The Courier, Michael Minasi) MANDATORY CREDIT

Investigators were also looking for what’s known in the Catholic religion’s Canon Law as secret files related to priests kept by archdioceses offices. The files could include misconduct reports and internal investigations regarding priests and clergy members.

The Church likely relied on these records when publicly identifying priests and clergy members in the lists published across Texas last January.

Agents also raided a Fort Bend County Catholic church, Sacred Heart Church in Conroe and the Shalom Center in Splendora that day.

In September 2018, just two months before the raids, the Montgomery County District Attorney sought charges against Manuel LaRosa-Lopez, a priest in DiNardo’s diocese. LaRosa-Lopez is charged with four counts of indecency with a child — all felonies.

LaRosa-Lopez is accused of fondling two teenagers while he was the priest at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. He was arrested on the charges on Sept. 11, 2018.

The search warrants were to find evidence in that case, but Ligon told reporters the day of the raids if his investigators find any other evidence involving any other member of the diocese, he’ll bring appropriate charges.

Father Manuel LaRosa-Lopez faces trial in March on four counts of indecency with a child. LaRosa-Lopez's arrest led to state and federal agents executing four search warrants on the Galveston-Houston Diocese on Nov. 28, 2018. (Montgomery County Sheriff's Office via AP)
This undated photo provided by the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office shows Father Manuel LaRosa-Lopez. LaRosa-Lopez, was arrested Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018, by police in Conroe, Texas and is accused of fondling two people when they were teenagers and he was a priest at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Conroe. He is charged with four counts of indecency with a child. (Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office via AP)

LaRosa-Lopez is set for trial in March in Montgomery County.

“At the minimum it should address the possibility there’s a cover-up. Four search warrants is fairly thorough and, like I said, if it leads us to the Vatican, I’ll be headed to Rome,” Ligon told reporters on Nov. 28, 2018 as he stood on the steps of the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese.

Months later, DiNardo faced criticism of his handling of the sexual abuse claims against his deputy, Monsignor Frank Rossi, after Laura Pontikes, a parishioner, accused Rossi of sexually assaulting her. Pontikes and her husband sought counseling from Rossi — the priest who also performed the couple’s marriage a few years earlier, the Associated Press reported in June 2019.

Pontikes said the counseling later turned into a sexual relationship. “He took a woman that went into a church truly looking for God, and he took me for himself,” Pontikes told the Associated Press.

Pontikes filed a criminal complaint against Rossi with the Houston Police Department, which led to his criminal charge. The archdiocese eventually “acknowledged a sexual relationship between Rossi and parishioner Laura Pontikes, but asserted that it was consensual,” the Associated Press reported in June 2019.

Monsignor Frank Rossi stands outside Our Lady of the Pines Catholic Church in Woodville, Texas, on Sunday, April 14, 2019. The Galveston-Houston archdiocese acknowledged a sexual relationship between Rossi and parishioner Laura Pontikes, but asserted that it was consensual. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
Monsignor Frank Rossi stands outside Our Lady of the Pines Catholic Church in Woodville, Texas, on Sunday, April 14, 2019. The Galveston-Houston archdiocese acknowledged a sexual relationship between Rossi and parishioner Laura Pontikes, but asserted that it was consensual. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

On Oct. 21, 2019 a Harris County grand jury declined to issue an indictment against Rossi and the charge was dismissed, district court records show.

The priest at the center of the criminal investigation in Victoria is not named on the Victoria Diocese or Galveston-Houston Archdiocese’s list of credibly accused clergy. The Galveston-Houston diocese has also not granted requests for an interview.

The law enforcement investigation into the allegations concerning the priest in the Victoria case is still open and active.

KXAN Photojournalist Ben Friberg and Digital Executive Producer Kate Winkle contributed to this report.

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