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Yucca Priest Quits Over 1992 Crime

Catholics: His strip- search of boys in Indiana had become public. Parishioners are divided over his resignation.

April 09, 2002|SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Leaving a high-desert Roman Catholic parish bitterly divided, a Yucca Valley priest has resigned amid revelations that he strip-searched a group of seventh- and eighth-grade boys a decade ago in Indianapolis when the boys were accused of setting off stink bombs in a classroom.

Father Ponciano Ramos, the administrator and pastor of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Yucca Valley, resigned over the weekend, officials from the Diocese of San Bernardino said Monday.

The voluntary resignation was announced to the 800 families who attended Mass at St. Mary's. Father Howard Lincoln, a priest who acts as a spokesman for the diocese, read the parishioners a letter from Bishop Gerald R. Barnes after Sunday services, said Richard Sroda, a church member.

"I couldn't believe what he was saying," Sroda said Monday. "He went straight to the point. He said that he had resigned. We were silent. Everybody kind of looked at each other and then, since it was the end of the Mass, we just kind of quietly left. Then I got back home and I thought, 'Did I really hear what I thought I heard?'"

The issue has upset members of St. Mary's much the way the larger moral crisis enveloping the Catholic church has demoralized and divided Catholics around the country.

Some of Ramos' parishioners think he made a mistake, paid for it and was unfairly forced out, while others believe Ramos is not fit to be a priest.

According to church officials, court records and associates of Ramos, the priest pleaded guilty in 1993 to three misdemeanors in connection with the strip-search.

At the time, Ramos was a priest at St. Rita's Catholic Church and the director of St. Rita's Catholic School, in the Indianapolis area. In 1992, at the school, two stink bombs were set off in a classroom, and the principal, a nun, asked Ramos to question a dozen students about the incident, Lincoln said Monday.

Ramos allegedly strip-searched some of the boys, Lincoln said, and touched at least one boy's genitals as part of his search. Initially charged with three felonies, Ramos, 55, struck a plea bargain and was sentenced to 18 months of probation.

Lincoln and other church officials said that prosecutors conceded they had no evidence that Ramos conducted the strip search for sexual gratification.

"But I would consider it extremely inappropriate behavior with children," Lincoln said. "It was just extraordinarily poor judgment."

Ramos is a member of the Society of the Divine Word, a religious order based in Illinois, said Bill Lemann, a lay spokesman for the Diocese of San Bernardino.

Following Ramos' guilty plea, he was transferred to Murietta by the society, and then to Yucca Valley. The Society of the Divine Word, which could not be reached for comment Monday, never told the Diocese of San Bernardino about Ramos' plea bargain. Neither did Ramos himself, Lincoln said.

The incident came to light because the mother of one of the boys in Indiana learned that Ramos was a pastor in California. She said she had thought that he had been reassigned to work that would keep him away from children altogether. The mother brought the case to the attention of the news media, which alerted church officials late last week.

Among Ramos' defenders is William Agre, a maintenance man and parishioner at the Yucca Valley church, and his wife, Mary, the church secretary. The couple were so fond of Ramos that they followed him from his first California assignment, in Murietta, to Yucca Valley four years ago.

Agre said the resignation has affected the lives of many parishioners. Four brides had wanted Ramos to officiate at their weddings, and plans to conduct confirmation for a group of high school students this month are now up in the air.

"Everybody in our church is in tears," Agre said Monday. "It was a mistake. He served his time."

Agre said Ramos, who could not be reached for comment Monday, was very cautious around children in Southern California.

There is no evidence, Lemann said, that Ramos abused children during his term with the Diocese of San Bernardino.

"It certainly is a sign of the times," Lemann said. "It makes it very difficult when the revisionists can come in and challenge something that took place ... years ago. You're caught up in it, and that's unfortunate. Teachers taught differently 20 years ago. Parents raised their children differently 20 years ago."

But Lincoln said the Catholic church must act on revelations of improper behavior, no matter when they occurred.

"I think the dioceses are being extremely vigilant now," he said. "We want to convey to our people that they can feel very confident that the diocese has a comprehensive sexual abuse policy and that it is going to be followed, and that our diocese will never assign to any ministry any priest who has abused children."

Arguments like Lemann's, said Sroda, are merely another way for the Catholic church to act as an apologist for priests that abuse children.

"I don't think you can measure this in degrees," Sroda said. "I think abuse is abuse and a violation is a violation."

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