LOS ANGELES – Clergy abuse victims protested Wednesday outside the cathedral of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles after learning that a visiting priest who was convicted of multiple sex abuse counts had a prior criminal history in Italy and was rejected by another Southern California diocese because of concerns about his past.
Dan Rather reported Tuesday on the cable channel HDNet that the Rev. Fernando Lopez Lopez pleaded guilty in 2000 to repeated sexual violence on a minor in Italy before he left the Diocese of Tivoli and arrived in Southern California. Efforts by The Associated Press to confirm the report were not immediately successful.
Lopez Lopez, 47, had been turned away by the Diocese of San Bernardino because of concerns about his past in Italy, including the priest's own statements that some parishioners there believed he was abusing drugs and having sexual contact with members of the parish youth group, according to court papers reviewed by the AP.
The Los Angeles archdiocese accepted his application, however, and assigned the young priest to St. Thomas the Apostle where he went on to molest at least three children. Lopez Lopez was convicted of multiple sex abuse counts in 2005 and served three years of a nearly seven-year sentence before being deported to his native Colombia.
Michael Hennigan, an attorney representing the Los Angeles archdiocese and retired Cardinal Roger Mahony, told the AP in an e-mail the archdiocese was not told by the Italian diocese about any misconduct by Lopez Lopez and would never have accepted him in ministry if it knew of any problems.
The archdiocese received a completed affidavit from the priest's Italian bishop when he was hired in 2001 saying he was fit for duty, according to court papers. The church later removed him from ministry and contacted police after receiving a complaint in 2004. The church's own investigation uncovered Lopez Lopez's other victims, Hennigan said.
There was no answer Wednesday at the Diocese of Tivoli, where it was a church holiday.
One of the priest's victims, who was a primary witness in the 2005 criminal trial, is now suing the archdiocese, alleging it should never have hired Lopez Lopez given the warning signs and didn't act fast enough after receiving notice of past problems.
"They should have never put him into ministry," said Vince Finaldi, an attorney for the plaintiff. "He showed up unannounced. There was no introduction made, he just basically showed up on their door step."
The Associated Press does not generally identify people who claim they are victims of sexual abuse or misconduct.
The plaintiff, now 22, claims he cut himself, abused drugs, developed an eating disorder and tried to commit suicide because of the abuse. Lopez Lopez molested him for the first time during confession when the boy was 12 and abused him three times a week for several months, according to court papers.
Lopez Lopez had befriended the boy's grandmother, who had custody of him and was dying of lung cancer. The priest helped with her care by taking the boy on trips to buy food and other supplies. While running the errands, he would molest the boy in the car and also abused him in the parish rectory and at the boy's home when his grandmother was in the hospital, the papers allege.
In San Bernardino, where Lopez Lopez had applied before coming to Los Angeles, the monsignor in charge of hiring new priests asked why he didn't have a letter of introduction from his Italian bishop and wrote to the Tivoli diocese. He received a reply that made references to unsubstantiated allegations and indicated the priest had left the diocese under a mutual agreement.
When the monsignor confronted Lopez Lopez, the priest acknowledged that parishioners had complained that he behaved inappropriately with young people and that some people believed he was having sexual relationships with members of his youth group and using drugs with them, court documents state.
Lopez Lopez denied the allegations and told the monsignor the boys were all over age 18.
Still, there were enough questions that the diocese didn't give him a position, said John Andrews, a spokesman for the San Bernardino diocese.
Lopez Lopez was hired in Los Angeles about three months later and in 2004, the monsignor in San Bernardino became aware that he was working in Los Angeles. He wrote his counterpart with what he had learned three years before about Lopez Lopez because of the "current age of total disclosure," according to court filings.
Los Angeles church officials did not confront Lopez Lopez with the information for two months.
When they did, the priest said the monsignor had misunderstood their conversation. He said the teens in Italy had been kicked out of the youth group for using drugs and having homosexual contact, and it had created hard feelings among parishioners when the pastor got involved.
Church officials in Los Angeles also wrote to the Tivoli diocese and were told his file showed "conflicting voices" on the priest's behavior in Tivoli.
Hennigan, the archdiocese attorney, told the AP the letter from San Bernardino only involved "unsubstantiated rumors of misconduct with adults," and they were already investigating the claims when they received the first report of sexual misconduct in Los Angeles.
The archdiocese removed Lopez Lopez in July 2004 after receiving its first complaint, six months after it had received the warning letter from San Bernardino.
Associated Press writer Alessandra Rizzo in Rome contributed to this report.