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Abuse Investigation at Azusa Church

April 02, 2002|RICHARD WINTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles County sheriff's detectives are investigating complaints that youths at St. Frances of Rome Catholic Church in Azusa were molested by an adult. Authorities have interviewed more than a dozen altar boys.

The allegations were brought to the attention of detectives by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles after it received a tip on its hotline for sexual abuse.

Detectives said their investigation led to conversations with alleged victims. But they declined to name the suspect, the number of victims, or which of the clergy and staff had been interviewed, saying only that the suspect is an adult associated with the church.

Sgt. Ron Waltman of the Sheriff's Family Crimes Bureau said church officials are cooperating with the investigation. "This is not going to be a protracted investigation. We're going to resolve this quickly, so that this cloud does not hang over the parish," he said.

Waltman said children at the church and adjacent school are safe. "We have no information that the offending party is at that church now," he said. Father Roque Fernandez, associate pastor, declined to comment on the probe Monday and referred questions to the archdiocese. He said the pastor, Father David F. Granadino, was unavailable for comment.

Tod Tamberg, archdiocese spokesman, said, "The archdiocese is cooperating with the sheriff's detectives, and they've asked we refer all questions to them."

Last Monday, without naming the parish, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony said at a news conference that the archdiocese had turned over information from the hotline to the Sheriff's Department about an alleged incident of abuse.

The news conference followed a Mass where Mahony apologized for "the sinful and deplorable actions of a small percentage of priests" and said he had adopted a zero-tolerance policy for child abusers.

In investigating the Azusa complaint, Waltman said, sheriff's detectives on one evening last week swept across the San Gabriel Valley city and simultaneously interviewed altar boys and other youths about the allegations. "We tried to speak to as many people as we could so they could not discuss it with each other," he said.

Interviews will continue this week, Waltman said. There are about 75 altar "servers" at the church, the majority being boys in grades 5 through 8. About 200 families attend St. Frances, and 300 children attend the K-8 school.

One parishioner, Joe Rocha, an Azusa city councilman, said the probe was not mentioned during church services over the weekend. "Most of the parishioners are aware of the investigation," he said.

The archdiocese hotline on sexual abuse was established in August. It was one of 11 items required of the Los Angeles and Orange archdioceses in settling a $5.2-million lawsuit last year over sexual molestation charges involving an Orange County priest and one of his high school students.

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