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Removal of O.C. Priest Is Sought

Orange County

Catholic officials defend decision to keep cleric in child porn case, saying their zero-tolerance policy doesn't apply. The FBI may investigate.

July 26, 2003|William Lobdell and Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writers

Nearly two years after police recommended a Santa Ana priest be charged with possession of child pornography, the cleric remains in ministry at a parish that has an elementary school on its grounds.

Angry at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange's handling of the sexual misconduct case, former church employee Fernando Guido, who found the pornography in 2001 on a laptop computer formerly owned by Father Cesar Salazar, said he met with FBI officials this month and they promised to investigate whether federal charges could be brought against the cleric.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 29, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Child pornography -- An article Saturday in the California section on how the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange handled a complaint about Father Cesar Salazar incorrectly reported that Santa Ana police recommended that he face a felony charge of possessing child pornography. The charge, which prosecutors declined to file, would have been a misdemeanor.

Guido's attorney, Michael J. Sundstedt, said the FBI told him an investigation had been launched. An FBI spokeswoman said the bureau doesn't comment on whether inquiries are underway.

Salazar could not be reached for comment Friday.

The news raises further questions about enforcement of the diocese's zero-tolerance policy, under which any credible allegation of sexual abuse will result in immediate dismissal of any priest or lay employee.

The Times reported this week that a choir director convicted 18 years ago of lewd contact with a minor was allowed to continue working at three parishes after a new fingerprinting policy uncovered his criminal record in April. The director was fired Wednesday after a reporter's inquiry.

Church officials said they've been hampered in cases where priests were suspected of viewing child pornography because that kind of misconduct doesn't fall within their zero-tolerance guidelines for sexual abuse.

In a written statement this week that did not name Salazar, diocese officials said the priest "did not admit to nor was he found to have engaged in conduct that would warrant removal from ministry" under the church's zero-tolerance policy.

Father Michael McKiernan, director of clergy personnel and secretary to Bishop Tod D. Brown, told Guido in an e-mail that zero tolerance refers only to those who have "engaged in" molestation.

In their statement this week, church officials said they gave Salazar a psychological evaluation, counseling and placed him in "restrictive ministry."

His role, however, differs little from that of other priests. Salazar is one of two priests assigned to work at St. Joseph Church, a parish with 2,000 families in Santa Ana, and one of four who live in the rectory.

Salazar still celebrates Mass with the assistance of altar boys and hears confessions at the church, whose parishioners haven't been told of the priest's restricted status, according to diocesan officials. He is not allowed to interact with the children at the neighboring parochial school, which has about 275 students from kindergarten to eighth grade.

Shirl Giacomi, chancellor and diocesan spokeswoman, said the priest has been cooperating fully while on probation.

She added that the moves to restrict his ministry were a "precautionary measure" and the priest is considered "no serious risk" to children.

While the definition of "restrictive ministry" is flexible, depending on a bishop's goals, its implementation over the years has been problematic, said Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk and expert on sexual abuse within the church.

Advocates for victims of priest abuse, however, say they don't know why the zero-tolerance policy is not applied to child pornography cases.

"It shouldn't matter what the exact definitions are," said Lee Bashforth, director of the Orange County chapter of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "People are clearly a threat to children if they are downloading that filth."

Guido said he stumbled upon the pornographic images of children, which police said numbered about 100, while testing a used laptop computer that a friend had bought in September 2001.

Though Salazar was the original owner of the computer, according to a diocesan statement, it had subsequently been in the possession of Guido's friend and someone else.

Santa Ana Police Sgt. Baltazar De La Riva said the diocese reported the find after the pictures were discovered.

Officers conducted an investigation that included interviews with witnesses and a computer analysis.

Detectives submitted their report to the Orange County district attorney's office in October 2001, recommending that Salazar be charged with felony possession of child pornography, De La Riva said.

The next day, prosecutors rejected the case for lack of evidence. Church officials said prosecutors believed it would be difficult to prove which of the computer's users was responsible for the pornography. District attorney's officials could not be reached Friday for comment.

Guido said he waited for more than a year in hopes that the church would remove the priest.

"I just want him removed from active ministry so he doesn't have access to other children," said Guido, a 28-year-old real estate agent who worked for the diocese as a lay employee until last year.

At Guido's insistence, the case was reviewed by a diocese sexual-misconduct panel this spring. Church officials told members that no charges were filed but did not mention the recommendation from police that the priest be prosecuted, according to a former panel member who served as a representative of abuse victims. The Times does not name sexual abuse victims without their consent.

This month, out of frustration, Guido went to the FBI. Possession of child pornography downloaded from the Internet is a crime that can be prosecuted by state and federal authorities.

Although the statute of limitations has expired for state prosecution, federal authorities have five years to prosecute.

"There were times I just decided to give up" getting the priest removed from a parish with children, Guido said. "But my conscience would keeping speaking back to me. I felt like I would be held accountable some day" if a child were harmed.

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