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Deacon Pleads No Contest to Abuse

Crime: Catholic layman, who worked at South El Monte church, admits felony sex charges.

April 16, 2002|RICHARD WINTON and BETH SHUSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A Catholic deacon who worked at a South El Monte church faces more than four years in prison after pleading no contest to felony charges of providing pornographic material to young boys and sexual battery on one of them, officials said Monday.

The sentencing of Deacon Arturo Ahumada, a layman who served on the staff at Epiphany Catholic Church, was postponed Monday until May 14. He pleaded no contest on March 4 to charges that he showed a pornographic videotape to two boys he met through the parish and molested one of them at his home.

Ahumada's sex abuse case is the fourth involving the Los Angeles Archdiocese in the last five years, according to Cardinal Roger M. Mahony. He said seven other cases involving abusive priests occurred before 1997. The names of all accused priests have been given to authorities, Mahony said.

Ahumada used his position with the church "to befriend these boys and manipulate them," said Det. Albert Maldonado of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Family Crimes Unit.

Prosecutors allege that Ahumada, 45, invited two boys, ages 15 and 16, to his South El Monte home several times for dinner between March 1 and March 31 last year. He showed them a pornographic videotape, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Habib A. Balian. Ahumada also molested one of the boys, Balian said.

"He acted as a kind of father figure and close friend to these boys," Maldonado said. "They'd go over to his home together and separately."

Maldonado said one of boys decided "he had enough" and told a South El Monte high school guidance counselor. That counselor, Maldonado said, reported the alleged sexual abuse to the Sheriff's Department. Sheriff's detectives arrested Ahumada in July.

The deacon entered an open plea, meaning that he made no plea bargain with prosecutors. He will be sentenced by Pomona Court Commissioner Wade Olson on two felony counts of providing illicit materials to minors and one count of misdemeanor sexual battery on a boy.

Archdiocese officials said Ahumada will no longer serve the ministry.

"There is the legal process that the person is going through," said Tod Tamberg, an archdiocese spokesman. "But we also have a higher standard ourselves because of our responsibility to protect children, and so he will not return to ministry."

There are three other investigations involving the L.A. Archdiocese.

Father David Granadino is under investigation by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department for allegedly abusing boys at St. Francis of Rome Catholic Church in Azusa. Sheriff's officials said the investigation should be completed by week's end. Nearly 100 altar servers, students and others have been interviewed by authorities.

Mahony has removed Granadino from his post, pending the outcome of the criminal investigation.

In another case, Mahony said a priest was reported to the Bell Gardens Police Department in 1997 or 1998 based on allegations by a parent that her son had been abused. The mother and her son have since left the state and have not been located, Mahony said.

The cardinal forced the accused priest to leave the ministry in 1998. Mahony said that, as far as he knows, the priest has also left Southern California. He would not name the man.

A third priest was removed from the ministry by Mahony in 1997 because of sexual misconduct. The priest came to the attention of authorities when a therapist reported that he had allegedly pinched a girl on the buttocks. Mahony said that no criminal charge was filed, but that additional information led him to fire the priest for his affairs with women.

Mahony sent a letter recently to Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley and to Los Angeles Police Department detectives revealing the Bell Gardens case, as well as the pinching allegation.

Mahony said he wants to turn over all abuse information to Los Angeles authorities. "We've given them carte blanche," he said.

Mahony said he will err on the side of caution in ridding the church of alleged abusers.

"We have evolved toward what I would call a very, very strict zero-tolerance today," Mahony said in an interview last week. "We've learned a lot, unfortunately."

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