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Priest Put on Leave in Sex Inquiry

The L.A. Archdiocese says that until recently only secondhand allegations had surfaced.

March 03, 2004|Richard Winton | Times Staff Writer

One of the 10 priests who were ministering in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles last month despite sexual molestation allegations has been placed on leave pending a church investigation.

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony placed Father Walter Fernando on administrative leave from his duties at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Pasadena.

The decision comes more than a year after church officials learned of the accusations against him. Fernando has vigorously denied the allegations through his attorney.

Mahony's decision was based on a recommendation from the Clergy Misconduct Oversight Board after church officials recently interviewed a woman who alleges that Fernando molested her in 1981 when she was 17 years old and attending a Pico Rivera parish.

The board discussed Fernando at least twice previously, but cited a lack of evidence in leaving him in parish ministry.

Tod Tamberg, archdiocese spokesman, said the allegations until recently were secondhand, made by the alleged victim's attorney in February 2003. In August 2002, The Times reported that Fernando was under police investigation. Fernando's personnel file was also subpoenaed by the Los Angeles County Grand Jury last summer.

The accuser sued the church in December, alleging that Fernando touched her breasts and forced her to touch him.

In a statement to parishioners dated Feb. 21, Vicar of the Clergy Craig Cox said the decision to remove Fernando did not reflect a judgment on his guilt. Cox said that an investigation by a private investigator who is a former FBI agent is continuing.

"By our policy, administrative leave is recommended when an initial investigation raises sufficient questions to take the precaution of placing the priest on leave while further investigation continues," he said.

The Times disclosed Jan. 14 that the LAPD listened to a telephone conversation between the accuser and the priest in May 2002 in which the cleric made statements that corroborated the alleged victim's account of molestation, according to a police detective. Fernando was not criminally charged.

Tamberg said that before that story, church officials were not aware of the content of the police investigation.

Cox told parishioners the archdiocese had yet to be granted access to the police investigation's results and said the church inquiry "will require significant additional time."

Archdiocese officials said that others among the 10 accused priests were not removed because they face allegations from a single accuser that have not been substantiated.

Last month, however, one of the 10 priests was removed from the ministry after a second alleged victim came forward.

The archdiocese has said that since 1931, 244 of its priests have been accused of molesting 656 victims.

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