The Diocese of Fresno failed to do its due diligence investigating a case of alleged sexual abuse of a minor by Father Miguel Flores in 2002, said Bishop Armando Ochoa in an interview with Norma Gaspar of Telemundo Bakersfield earlier this week. Flores was put on paid leave from his pastoral duties at St. Joseph Church in Bakersfield on April 28 while the Diocese revisits the 17-year-old case.
In 2002, Flores was accused of raping and threatening a 16-year-old San Joaquin girl who worked as his office assistant in two churches in Kings County. According to press accounts of the trial, Flores bought the girl a 2002 Ford Mustang GT, a cellular phone, jewelry and clothing as an act of kindness. Flores' attorney maintained the case was about trying to extort more money from the priest, who comes from a wealthy background. A jury acquitted Flores of three counts of forcible rape, three counts of statutory rape, dissuading a witness and criminal threat charges. Flores was allowed to return to active ministry the next year by then Fresno Bishop John Steinbock.
But while the case was investigated and prosecuted by police, Bishop Ochoa said the Diocese failed to do its own investigation for possible violations of Church canon law.
"He was acquitted, but under canon law something like this is a crime, an abuse of a minor. We need to investigate and speak with the victim," said Ochoa who added that the Diocese has been in touch with the Kings County District Attorney's office.
"I wasn't here at that time, (in 2002) and with all that's been happening everywhere, we need to search for truth in all cases," said Ochoa. Perhaps the only man who can answer why the Diocese did not do an internal investigation is the late Bishop John Steinbock who died in 2010.
According to Kings County District Attorney Keith Fagundes, Flores cannot be retried on the charges for which he has already been acquitted as that would constitute double jeopardy. Fagundes said he could neither confirm nor deny his office is investigating Fr. Flores. However, depending on what new evidence may turn up during a new investigation, "There are other possibilities in theory that can be allowed for possible prosecution, " said Fagundes in a telephone interview.
Even if a new investigation finds no criminal charges to be applicable to Fr. Flores, the church can still take other action. Bishop Ochoa compares it with the case of former US Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Just last month, a church tribunal investigation found evidence McCarrick had sexually molested a minor altar boy almost 50-years-ago. He was defrocked and expelled from the priesthood for sex abuse.
"He lost his priesthood precisely because of a church investigation," said Ochoa. "I'm not saying that is the case here, but we have to investigate it."
I must admit I was sort of puzzled by the original letter released by the Diocese informing parishioners at St. Joseph church that Fr. Flores was being put on leave. The letter reads in part, "This action follows a report of very serious matters that warrant a formal investigation. The issues being addressed include an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor."
The letter did not mention it was about the 2002 case. Teresa Dominguez, chancellor for the diocese, said there are no new alleged victims coming forward. In an email, Dominguez wrote, "The diocesan investigation was initiated in response to a third party disclosure related to the 2002 case. Law enforcement was contacted immediately and will be informed of the outcome of the diocesan investigation."
Parishioners at St. Joseph were visibly shaken when given the news about Fr. Flores. "I cried, my heart is in pieces," said Sylvia Vargas, a 25-year member of St. Joseph. "I love Father Miguel, he's like a brother to me and my children," she told me outside St. Joseph church after mass. Vargas said she didn't know all the facts and would pray for both Flores and the victim.
Flores has been incommunicado since being put on leave. "He's still in shock, as all of us are," said Bishop Ochoa. "This actually is a very difficult thing, he's been a priest for 25 years." Difficult as it may be, Bishop Ochoa maintains a re-examination of the case is necessary. "The church says, 'No, this is not right.' We have to investigate for the well being of all," he said.
The Rev. Joseph V. Brennan is the new incoming Bishop of the Diocese of Fresno who will take over the reins when Ochoa officially retires on May 2. Brennan acknowledged the sex abuse crisis facing the Catholic church and in the Fresno diocese. "We must encourage people to speak out against abuse (by priests)," he said. "Trust needs to be earned, it's never really deserved."
Currently there are four priests in the diocese on administrative leave pending ongoing investigations of sex abuse, including Fr. Miguel Flores.