For 2 Decades, in 3 Countries, Priest Left a Trail of Sex Abuse

April 20, 2002

By DEAN E. MURPHY with JUAN FORERO

New York Times


The Rev. Enrique Díaz Jiménez is a priest from Colombia who
has ministered during the past 25 years in the best
international tradition of the Roman Catholic Church.

Likable and hard-working, he has led popular charismatic
services for Spanish-speaking immigrants in New York. He
has taken needy children on spiritual retreats from the
shantytowns and coastal villages of Venezuela. And he has
served in working-class parishes of Bogotá.

But Father Díaz, 59, has also left an international trail
of deceit and manipulation, betraying the trust of
parishioners in three countries while sexually abusing
dozens of boys over two decades, according to interviews
and a review of criminal records and church documents in
the United States, Venezuela and Colombia.

Father Díaz is not just another bad priest whose sad and
corrupt story carries sudden resonance in this period of
scrutiny for the Catholic Church. His story is different
and significant because the totality of his crimes, and the
degree to which they were ignored or overlooked in several
countries, illustrate a problem that seems to know no
national boundaries.

As Pope John Paul II prepares for a meeting next week with
American cardinals to discuss the sexual abuse scandal in
the United States, Father Díaz's record highlights the
challenge that bishops face in preventing bad priests from
exploiting the vast international presence of the church.

Bishop Thomas V. Daily of the Diocese of Brooklyn, in an
exchange of correspondence with a Venezuelan bishop in 1991
about allegations against Father Díaz, praised the priest's
work in his diocese even as a 60-count indictment was
pending against him in Queens on child sexual abuse
charges. Later that year, after pleading guilty to three
counts of sexual abuse in the case, Father Díaz was
deported to Venezuela, where the pattern of victimizing
young boys continued unabated.

And so it went throughout Father Díaz's ministry. Moving
from country to country, from parish to parish, from victim
to victim, he was often held unaccountable by church
officials and was treated delicately by some law
enforcement authorities, the interviews and documents show.


In the most recent case, Father Díaz was arrested in
November and charged with molesting two teenage boys, this
time in Bogotá, where he was working as a priest despite
the New York conviction and the suspension of his priest's
license in Venezuela. At the time of the arrest, he had
been living with a teenager, who was then 18, for three
years, the Colombian authorities said.

Contacted in Bogotá, Father Díaz declined several requests
to be interviewed.

"If you are a bad guy as a priest, the system allows you to
go all over," said the Rev. C. John McCloskey, director of
the Catholic Information Center in Washington. "In some
places you can go to a new diocese and even get false
papers. The people doing this are con men. And if they are
with that disease, sexual abuse, or pedophilia, they repeat
and they do whatever it takes to repeat. Being a priest is
an excellent cover."

Large Gaps in Oversight

The fragmented structure of the Catholic Church
internationally makes it difficult to keep track of priests
like Father Díaz because there is no central clearinghouse
over the movement of clergymen, church officials and
Catholic scholars said. "It is kind of a bishop-to-bishop
thing," Bill Ryan, a spokesman for the United States
Conference of Catholic Bishops, said of the exchange of
information about priests between dioceses. "If a priest
comes from a foreign country, the diocese would check with
the diocese where he came from."

A chronic shortage of priests in the United States and
elsewhere has led to regular movements of priests around
the world, further blurring the lines of authority and
jurisdiction. Father Díaz first came to the United States
from Venezuela in 1983 because of a pressing need in Queens
and Brooklyn for Spanish-speaking priests.

It can be easy to slip through the cracks. During several
of his nearly eight years in New York, Father Díaz lived in
an administrative no man's land in which no church
authority was actively watching him. His official
three-year assignment to the Brooklyn diocese ended in
August 1986, but he applied to remain in New York. While
the diocese discussed where to place him next, he traveled
back and forth between Venezuela and New York, sexually
abusing boys in both places, according to interviews with
church officials and victims.

Communication among bishops in the United States, Venezuela
and Colombia was so inadequate that Father Díaz was able to
find parish work in each country despite a mounting record
of abuse and allegations of abuse. The examples ranged from
unconfirmed suspicions among church officials and teachers
throughout the 1980's to a Venezuelan bishop's decision to
suspend his priest's license in 1996 for 20 years after 18
boys who were preparing for their first holy communion
accused him of abuse.

One of the most consequential breakdowns in communications
occurred when Father Díaz was deported by the federal
Immigration and Naturalization Service to Venezuela after
he was convicted in 1991 of sexually abusing three altar
boys from St. Leo's Church in Corona, Queens.

Upon arriving in Venezuela, Father Díaz was picked up at
Simón Bolívar International Airport by the vicar for the
Diocese of Vargas, the Rev. Javier Porras. Father Porras
and other Venezuelan church officials were aware of his
criminal problems in New York, but had been persuaded by
Father Díaz that the accusations were false, Father Porras
said in an interview. "He said it was slander, all lies,"
he said.

Father Díaz was given a new assignment as a priest in Punta
de Mulatos, a neighborhood in La Guaira, a northern town.
Once he was there, rumors about him and some boys at the
small village chapel began circulating. Later, after he was
transferred to San José Obrero in Mamo, another parish in
the Vargas diocese, the 18 boys, who were mostly 10 or 11,
came forward.

"He threatened the children, that if they did something, or
reported something, they would go to hell," Father Porras
said.

In a letter written to the Vargas bishop on Feb. 7, 1991,
just five months before Father Díaz's deportation from the
United States, Bishop Daily of Brooklyn advised him that
Father Díaz was "experiencing a very difficult situation"
in New York because of the criminal case against him. But
the Brooklyn bishop did not try to dissuade the Venezuelan
bishop from welcoming him back.

"We have never had a single problem, and everything we have
to say is positive," Bishop Daily wrote to Bishop Francisco
de Guruceaga Iturriza of the Vargas diocese. He went on to
say that officials in the Brooklyn diocese were praying so
"this difficult situation is resolved."

In an interview in Caracas, where he now lives in
semiretirement, Bishop de Guruceaga said he was bitter
about the experience and felt betrayed by Father Díaz, who,
with a strong and magnetic personality, had a long history
of being able to talk himself out of difficult situations.

In some parishes where accusations were made, he rallied
supporters to sign petitions in his defense. In the late
1980's, when a teacher at a school in the coffee-growing
town of Mesa Bolívar accused him of molesting boys there,
Father Díaz called a faculty meeting and turned everyone
against the teacher, according to some who attended the
meeting. A local priest who was made aware of the
complaints, the Rev. Alfredo Torres, said he gladly dropped
the issue and had no interest in going to the police. "The
way I saw it, I understood the problem would be resolved by
him leaving," Father Torres said.

Bishop de Guruceaga knew about the criminal charges against
Father Díaz, but blamed Bishop Daily of Brooklyn for not
sending a stronger signal about their veracity. It was
Bishop de Guruceaga who ultimately suspended Father Díaz's
license five years after his Queens conviction. But the
bishop said he did not involve the police because "it would
have been a great scandal, and all the energies of the
church would have been spent dealing with those who would
take advantage - the Protestants and the communists."

"If the bishop of New York would have suspended him, not
for 20 years, but for 2 or 3 years to allow for reflection,
then we would not have this problem," the bishop said. "I
would not have received him."

A spokesman for Bishop Daily, Frank De Rosa, said Father
Díaz was the responsibility of his home archdiocese, in
Mérida, Venezuela, not of church officials in Brooklyn. In
that regard, in April 1992, about nine months after Father
Díaz's deportation, the Brooklyn diocese wrote a letter to
the archbishop in Mérida that referred to Father Díaz's
"painful situation" in New York and his guilty plea a year
earlier.

"Our responsibility would have been to respond to the
bishop for whose diocese he was still a member, and that is
what was done," Mr. De Rosa said.

The 1992 letter by Msgr. Otto L. Garcia, the vicar general
in Brooklyn, also sought information about any previous
accusations in Venezuela involving Father Díaz, while
describing the priest's "exemplary" work for the diocese in
Brooklyn.

Delicate Case for Prosecutors

The handling of Father Díaz's case in Queens is instructive
in another way, reflecting some of the difficulties and
sensitivities confronted by prosecutors. With the issue of
sexual abuse by priests now at the top of the church's
agenda in the United States, civil authorities are
pressuring bishops to be more forthcoming in pursuing
criminal cases. But as the Díaz case shows, even
prosecutors can be ambivalent in their pursuit of
accusations against priests.

Even now, 11 years later, the assistant district attorney
in Queens who handled the Díaz case would not speak to a
reporter about it, and the district attorney, Richard A.
Brown, refused a request to make public the office's
internal file on Father Díaz, citing the confidentiality
surrounding sex crimes.

In 1990, three boys from St. Leo's Church in Corona went to
the police with accusations that Father Díaz had forced
them to perform oral sex over a period of more than four
years. The boys, the youngest 6 when the abuse started,
said the abuse occurred in a variety of places, including
their home during confessionals held in a bedroom, in a
changing room behind the church's altar, in the rectory and
in the Jackson Heights apartment of Father Díaz's sister.

A grand jury indicted Father Díaz on 60 criminal counts of
sexual abuse and endangering the welfare of a child in
September 1990. In a deal forged by the district attorney's
office, then led by John J. Santucci, the priest was
allowed to plead guilty to three counts that involved
inappropriately touching each of the boys once.

A spokesman for the district attorney's office said the
deal was struck with the consent of the boys' family,
something the eldest of the three victims, Kenny Rosa, now
26, denied in an interview. The lawyer for the boys,
Kenneth D. Litwack, said he was never consulted.

"I was looking forward to him paying the price," Mr. Rosa
said. "I remember the judge apologized to me: `I am sorry
that this happened. If it was up to me, I would throw away
the key, but this is the way the system works.' "

The judge, who is retired, did not recall the case.
According to the district attorney's spokesman, Patrick
Clark, Father Díaz faced a maximum penalty of seven years
in prison. But as part of the plea bargain, criminal
records show, he was given probation for five years and an
"intermittent sentence" of four months in prison that
allowed him to remain free on weekends, evidently so that
he could continue to function as a priest.

"This sentence is usually served on weekends, but in the
case of Father Díaz, in order to avoid raising the question
as to the celebration of Mass on Sunday, he may be serving
the sentence at Rikers Island, from Monday to Wednesday or
from Wednesday to Friday," Monsignor Garcia, the vicar
general, wrote at the time in a confidential diocesan file
kept on Father Díaz.

That note and other diocesan correspondence relating to
Father Díaz have been handed over to Mr. Litwack in a civil
lawsuit brought in 1990 by Mr. Rosa, a brother and a
nephew, who were the three victims in Corona. Mr. Litwack,
who was once a Bronx prosecutor, said a weekend plea for a
pedophile was unusual. "This only happened because the guy
was a priest," he said.

A letter to diocesan officials written by a priest who was
working as a part-time counselor for the district
attorney's office indicated that the assistant district
attorney handling the Díaz case, Therese M. Lendino,
believed it would be "hard to get a jury of 12 people to
come in with a guilty plea against a priest." The letter
mentioned that the judge in the case was Catholic, as is
Ms. Lendino.

The priest, the Rev. James T. Smith, wrote: "It is hard for
non-Catholics to understand us when the non-Catholics are
trying to do the right thing in the criminal justice
system. It is even harder for the Catholics." Last month,
Father Smith himself was placed on administrative leave by
the Brooklyn diocese because of separate accusations of
sexual abuse against him.

Mr. Clark said the paramount issue in the plea bargain was
to spare "the victims the possible trauma of being required
to testify," but he also noted that a trial would have been
difficult because "there was substantial community and
parish support" for Father Díaz. He also said prosecutors
were concerned that the case could be muddied because of a
family dispute involving relatives of both Father Díaz and
the boys.

"He was handled like any other defendant facing these kind
of charges," Mr. Clark said.

In the end, Father Díaz did not complete his brief prison
sentence. On July 18, 1991, the immigration service took
him to Kennedy Airport and placed him on a flight to
Caracas. Father Díaz did not fight his deportation. Civil
authorities at the airport in Venezuela were probably
unaware of Father Díaz's criminal past. An immigration
service spokeswoman said the agency did not notify
countries of criminal deportations before 1996.

A Diocese Washes Its Hands

The role of law enforcement is
significant, because the Brooklyn diocese more or less
washed its hands of Father Díaz once the boys in Corona
went to the police, the church correspondence indicates.
The diocese did not conduct an investigation into what had
occurred, and the victims say diocesan officials made no
effort to reach out to them in a pastoral or counseling
way.

In an internal memorandum dated April 28, 1991, a few weeks
after Father Díaz pleaded guilty, Bishop Daily asked, "Is
anyone getting any help for Father Díaz - psychological or
psychiatric?" A hand-written note on the memo also asked
about the victims, "Should we be doing anything in this
regard?"

The answer on both accounts was no.

"The determination was made that we would not interfere in
any way," Monsignor Garcia, the vicar general, said in a
deposition taken in the lawsuit filed by the Queens
victims.

In a separate memo to Monsignor Garcia about a week later,
Bishop Daily indicated how serious he believed the problems
surrounding Father Díaz were.

"I wonder if you might speak to me about the possibility of
giving a summary of the Díaz case to the papal nuncio in
case we get his inquiry, and even if we don't, it might be
well to keep him informed because of the magnitude of the
suit and even possible interest by the Holy See through the
Congregation for Clergy," Bishop Daily wrote, referring to
various Vatican offices.

Father Díaz's problems were touched upon later during a
meeting of bishops in Venezuela, but the subject was
abruptly dropped when a Venezuelan church official made it
clear to a visiting auxiliary bishop from Brooklyn that he
did not want to discuss it, according to the visiting
bishop, Rene A. Valero. Bishop Valero, who is from
Venezuela, said in an interview that he did not tell the
Venezuelan church officials anything about Father Díaz's
criminal conviction. "I didn't feel it was in my purview to
press the matter," he said.

In the late 1990's, when church officials in Venezuela
finally suspended his license, Father Díaz packed up and
returned to his native Colombia, to the relief of church
officials in Vargas, said Father Porras, the vicar there.
Church officials in Colombia apparently knew nothing of his
reputation or criminal past, and he easily found work again
as a priest - and, once again, more boys to molest.

Officials in the Archdiocese of Bogotá said they found out
about Father Díaz only about three years ago when the
parents of two boys turned up at the chancellor's office
complaining about a sexually abusive priest. Officials
there said that they had no record of Father Díaz, but that
they later found out that he was indeed working in a
parish.

Father Díaz had become friendly with some families in the
parish and was offering private Masses in their homes.
Eventually, the families introduced him to the local
pastor, who offered him work without asking to see his
credentials.

Soon Father Díaz was befriending boys again, and was
eventually arrested and accused of having oral and anal sex
with two, 13 and 14, from a neighboring poor parish. One of
the boys told the Bogotá police that they liked Father Diaz
and that they first had sex together after the priest lured
them to his apartment with an offer of lunch.

"He seemed like a priest," the 14-year-old said. "He showed
us his driver's license where he was dressed in the black
and white clothes like the ones used by priests."

On Jan. 22 of this year, Father Díaz was given a sentence
of 53 months and 10 days of house arrest, which is now
being heard on appeal. In the meantime, he is living in his
apartment in a pleasant neighborhood near a park and a
church.

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