Two Puerto Rico Priests Charged With Sex Abuse

Two Roman Catholic (search) priests in Puerto Rico's countryside were charged with sexually abusing four girls, police said Wednesday.

Revs. Jose Florencio Martinez Corvera (search), 39, and Manuel de la Cruz Sanchez Rivera (search), 49, both of El Salvador, were arrested Monday, police officer Maria Martinez Cubano said.

Both had been visiting priests at the La Monserrate parish of Jayuya, a central mountain town in the U.S. Caribbean territory, said Martinez Cubano, one of the officers in charge of the investigation.

The arrests came as some Catholics expressed hope that the successor to the late Pope John Paul II (search) would take a stronger stand against sexual abuse in the church. The sexual abuse crisis erupted in Massachusetts in January 2002, then rippled into most dioceses in the United States; the church in Canada, Australia, Latin America and Europe — including the pope's own Poland — also faced scandals.

The priests in Puerto Rico appeared before Superior Court Judge Alfredo Velez Lopez in the nearby town of Utuado on Monday. Martinez Corvera faces three counts of committing lewd acts and one count of aggravated aggression while de la Cruz faces one count of committing lewd acts, police said.

Velez found cause to arrest both priests and set bail at $15,000 for Martinez Corvera and $10,000 for de la Cruz. Both posted bail and were freed. A preliminary hearing was scheduled for April 22.

The girls were between the ages of 8 and 11 at the time of the acts, which took place between 2001 and 2002, Martinez Cubano said. "The girls said the priests had contact with their private parts," she said without providing details.

The investigation began in October after one of the girls was having trouble at school and talked about the sexual abuse with a social worker, who notified authorities, Martinez Cubano said. Both priests had returned to El Salvador by the time the investigation began, she said.

The priests came voluntarily to Puerto Rico from El Salvador when they were notified of the investigation, Martinez Cubano said. "There was no extradition process and they were never handcuffed," she said.

Martinez Corvera is accused of having improper contact with all four girls while de la Cruz had contact with one of them, Martinez Cubano said.

The alleged abuse happened on numerous occasions in the parish and throughout the town of Jayuya, some 60 miles (96 kilometers) southwest of the capital, San Juan.

Martinez Corvera was a priest in the Jayuya parish from 2000-2002 before he returned to El Salvador and de la Cruz was there from 2002-2004.

Their attorney Felix Negron Martinez declined to comment, except to confirm his clients came voluntarily and to say that all people tried in Puerto Rico are innocent until proven guilty.

If convicted, Martinez Corvera faces up to 24 1/2 years in prison and de la Cruz faces a maximum of eight years in prison, police said.