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Priest Denies Charges in Sexual Abuse Case

A longtime Inland Empire cleric pleads not guilty to molesting two boys in the '60s. The defense says the statute of limitations is key.

May 23, 2003|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

A priest who worked in the Inland Empire for more than 40 years, serving as a pastor at churches in San Bernardino, Riverside, Corona and Colton, pleaded not guilty Thursday to 12 counts of sexual abuse for allegedly molesting two teenage boys in the 1960s.

Peter Hernandez Luque, 68, sat quietly next to his attorney after making his plea in San Bernardino Superior Court and left the courthouse without making any further comment.

The prosecutor described the evidence against Luque as very strong and said he is confident of a conviction."This was not only a betrayal of trust, but a betrayal of his message," said Asst. Dist. Atty. Kurt Rowley of the San Bernardino County district attorney's office.

Luque is charged with lewd conduct and oral copulation for allegedly sexually abusing a 16-year-old boy between March 1 and April 30, 1966, in San Bernardino. He faces 10 additional charges for five alleged incidents of oral copulation and sodomy with a teenage boy between Feb. 11, 1967, and Feb. 10, 1969 in Colton.

The first alleged victim is now 53 and reported his accusations to the San Bernardino Police Department on April 25, 2002. One week later, following publicity generated by the accusations, the other alleged victim, now 50, reported his allegations to the Colton Police Department.

Msgr. Luque resigned March 1 as pastor of the 6,700-family St. Edward Catholic Church in Corona.

A graduate of Colton High and former cheerleader at San Bernardino Valley College, Luque was ordained in 1962 and has served at St. Anthony Catholic Church in San Bernardino, Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission in Riverside, San Salvador Catholic Church in Colton and Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in San Bernardino.

He was named pastor of St. Edward in 1994, replacing a priest who had been accused of sexual misconduct with an adult.

Luque's attorney, Steven Harmon, is asking for the case to be dismissed and might contend that the statute of limitations on the alleged crimes has expired.

However, the prosecutor said the charges were filed within a year of the allegations being made to police. Under a California law passed in 1994, authorities are allowed to prosecute alleged sexual abusers no matter how old the crimes, but the charges must be filed within one year of the victim's reporting the incidents to authorities.

A woman who met with the prosecutor after the proceeding and identified herself as the sister of the 50-year-old alleged victim said Luque confessed to her about the abuse when she met with him at his San Bernardino office in 1986. Rowley said the woman's testimony will be a significant part of his case.

The woman, who refused to identify herself, said her mother was a member of the San Salvador church in Colton while Luque was pastor from 1969-78. She said Luque presided over her two sisters' marriages. When her mother died, Luque acknowledged his guilt, the woman said.

"I told him he at least owed my brother an apology," the woman said. "He wouldn't give it. I'm here for my mom's and my brother's justice, and I say to the Catholic Church: Please ban further use of the word 'Father' with these men."

She said her family also plans a civil lawsuit.In a similar case, San Bernardino County Dist. Atty. Michael Ramos said he will not immediately pursue statutory rape charges against Paul Shanley, 71, a former priest who served in the Diocese of San Bernardino. Shanley has pleaded not guilty to 10 counts of child rape in Massachusetts and has been accused of sexually abusing a boy in Big Bear in 1990.

Ramos said he will wait for Massachusetts' prosecution to proceed.

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