ENSENADA, Mexico — A Mission Viejo man who served as a liaison between St. Timothy's Catholic Church in Laguna Niguel and a rural Mexican orphanage it supported was cleared of child molestation charges Thursday after spending 6 1/2 years in prison.
David Cathcart, 59, was declared not guilty after four boys who had claimed he lured them into sexual acts recanted their accusations, saying they had been coerced into lying by the orphanage's director, Mexican authorities said.
Judge Marta Flores Trejo announced the ruling Thursday and asked government officials to conduct a formal investigation into the Puerta de Fe, or Door of Faith, orphanage and its director, Gabriel Diego Garcia.
"My bags are packed," Cathcart said in a jailhouse interview. "I'm ready to go."
Cathcart, however, was not immediately released. Prison officials three weeks ago charged him with drug possession after allegedly finding heroin in his cell in 1998, charges that Cathcart described as "trumped up."
"The drugs were planted in my cell," he said.
Cathcart, a Realtor, was convicted of sex crimes in 1994 based on the youths' statements. Cathcart maintained his innocence from the beginning and said Thursday he was accused after traveling to Ensenada to inspect the orphanage's financial books.
Flores said the coercion of the young witnesses appeared to be part of a pattern of abuse at the orphanage.
"All of these victims had [been abused], but each victim said that he had been previously raped by others, and not by Mr. Cathcart," the judge said. "Mr. Cathcart has said from the beginning that the allegations against him were an act of revenge. . . . The victims said they were coerced into making false allegations against Mr. Cathcart by Mr. Garcia."
In an interview, Garcia strongly denied that he asked the four boys to make false charges.
"I didn't make the accusations. The four boys made the accusations," said Garcia, who said his orphanage serves 82 youths. "I denounced Cathcart for what the boys said he did to them."
Flores said at least one of the witnesses, three of whom are now adults, recanted his story in her presence. The others retracted their accusations in affidavits.
"It was very sad to see an 18-year-old man cry as he told me the story about the abuse and mistreatment at the orphanage," Flores said. "This is a very pathetic case. The victims said they were brutally beaten by Mr. Garcia."
None of the witnesses could be reached for comment.
Father Bruce Lavery, pastor of St. Timothy's, said the parish was heartened by the judge's decision.
"It's wonderful news," Lavery said. "He's a good man. He has four kids. He was a Boy Scout leader for 16 or 17 years. It's just been ridiculous."
Lavery said the parish had actively supported the orphanage in the years before Cathcart's arrest, sending money, reroofing buildings and replacing doors and windows. The parish dropped its support when the legal case began and turned its attention to supporting Cathcart, including making regular trips to Ensenada to defend him.
"I'm exceedingly happy," Lavery said. "It's an answer to a lot of prayers."
Cathcart said the church became involved with the orphanage in the early '90s, donating about $140,000 over a two-year period. Parish officials began to suspect some of the money was being diverted after they found the children were not properly cared for.
Cathcart agreed to go to the orphanage, a complex of single-story pastel-colored buildings about 20 miles north of Ensenada, to audit the books.
Cathcart said Thursday that Garcia refused to let him look at the books, so he returned to the United States. In the ensuing days, he said, he was summoned to the orphanage and told that one of the children was sick and being treated at an Ensenada hospital.
Cathcart went to the hospital and was arrested and later sentenced to 12 years in state prison, he said.
Cathcart cut fellow inmates' hair to earn money to survive, he said, all the while believing that eventually his accusers would help set him free.
"I knew they would recant one day because of the [good] things I did for them and the other kids at the orphanage," Cathcart said. "I don't have any bad feelings for the children because they were forced to lie."
Cathcart said his ordeal has been expensive, in both personal and financial terms. Cathcart has seven grandchildren, five of whom he has never seen. And last year, his father died while Cathcart was in prison.
Cathcart said his family has spent about $150,000 on a series of lawyers, most recently William Bollard, the Irvine attorney who three years ago helped win the release of three Newport Beach yachtsmen jailed on gun-possession charges after putting into Cozumel, Mexico, for emergency repairs.
Bollard said Thursday that Garcia is well-connected politically in the Ensenada area and that he feared Cathcart could be in jeopardy as long as he remains in prison.
"A lot of what the judge announced publicly, and what David said, about corruption at the orphanage is going to bring scrutiny to some powerful people in Ensenada," Bollard said. "I'm concerned about David's safety."
Cathcart said he has survived by relying on the very thing that brought him to Ensenada: his religious beliefs.
"Faith got me through this ordeal," he said. "I will do whatever God tells me to do. Believe it or not, this has been a positive experience in my life. It was rewarding. I don't regret it.
"The only thing I regret is having a business relationship with a very bad person."