The Oregonian (oregonlive.com)
Published: Saturday, August 25, 2012, 12:08 PM Updated: Saturday, August 25, 2012, 11:24 PM
By Kimberly A.C. Wilson, The Oregonian
Father Uriel Ojeda listens to attorney Jesse Ortiz as he makes a request for a delay in the priest’s bail hearing on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2011. Hector Amezcua/The Sacramento Bee
For most of their lives, the paths of Angel Perez and Uriel Ojeda ran along parallel lines, from devout boyhoods in Western Mexico, through years of prayer and education at Oregon’s Mount Angel Seminary and, finally, onto the pulpits of their own Catholic churches outside Portland and Sacramento.
They became the best of friends.
Now both priests are accused of crimes 500 miles apart that could ultimately send them to prison and jeopardize the collars that once told the world they were brothers.
The tales of Father Angel and Father Uriel, as their parishioners know them, offer windows into how two neighboring dioceses are addressing a relatively new phenomenon for the Roman Catholic Church: a real-time criminal investigation into alleged child sexual abuse by a priest.
Charges against Perez, 46, and Ojeda, 33 — acclaimed in both the Archdiocese of Portland and Diocese of Sacramento as dynamic, committed, Spanish-speaking pastors beloved by their immigrant congregations — have added fresh woes to a church made hyper-vigilant after settling hundreds of priest sex abuse lawsuits.
Perez, a native of La Barca, Mexico, was born in 1965 and raised in a red-brick hacienda just steps from a small Catholic church.
Ojeda, who was born in New Jersey in 1979 to Mexican-American parents, moved with them when he was 7 to Colima, a Mexican state bordering Jalisco, where Perez lived.
Perez moved to Oregon as an adult and entered Mount Angel in 1996. Ojeda’s family moved to Sacramento after he finished high school, and he entered Mount Angel in 1998.
Within a close-knit group of 10 Mexican-American students attending Oregon’s only seminary, Perez and Ojeda became especially close, according to four of their former classmates.
“They were like brothers,” said Francisco Hernandez. “There was total trust between the two of them.”
Perez graduated in 2002, serving in churches around Oregon. Ojeda spent time training in California before finishing at Mount Angel in 2007. Throughout, the two men would visit each other’s parishes.
Men who are about to be ordained typically choose someone who has played a major role in their spiritual training to “vest” them in their ceremonial stoles, floor-length garments draped over their robes as a sign of their peaching authority.
When Ojeda was ordained as a transitional deacon in 2006 — a final step leading to ordination as a priest — he picked Perez to vest him in a ceremony in Sacramento.
Both priests’ ordinations drew intense attention from the news media and the church. A 2002 article in The Oregonian highlighted Perez as the only priest ordained in the Portland Archdiocese that year, at the height of the clergy sex abuse crisis.
Ojeda was profiled in 2007 news stories about the “Magnificent Seven,” one of the largest classes of new priests in the Diocese of Sacramento.
Hernandez, now a priest in the vocations office of Sacramento’s pastoral center, also remembers Perez participating in Ojeda’s 2007 ordination, as well.
The date of that event — July 29, 2007 — would also mark the beginning of what Sacramento prosecutors describe as two years of abuse of a young parishioner by the newly minted priest, Ojeda.
Woodland, Calif., Woodburn, Ore.
According to a felony complaint by Sacramento prosecutors, Ojeda grew far too close to a 13-year-old girl at Holy Rosary Parish in Woodland, Calif.
The Woodland church would feel familiar to worshipers at St. Luke Catholic Church in Woodburn, where Perez was parish priest until his arrest on Aug. 13. The California congregation of about 8,500 is more than twice the size of Woodburn’s. But at both churches, the arrival of tireless clergymen with deep roots in Mexico resonated with churchgoers.
In California, Ojeda was known for his infectious good humour, a love of Spider-Man comics and jamming with parishioners on drums and the guitar.
In Woodburn, Perez recited Celia Cruz lyrics. And he still carried the nickname he’d picked up at St. Anne’s Catholic Church in Gresham, “Father Marc Anthony,” after the slight salsa singer (ex-husband of pop star Jennifer Lopez) whom he resembles.
According to church officials in Sacramento and Portland, both priests received regular “safe environment” training to drive home the church’s admonitions against crossing boundaries with children. The courses underscored that a priest should not be alone with a child.
According to prosecutors in Sacramento and Portland, both men violated that guidance.
Police say at Perez’s invitation, a 12-year-old boy spent the night on an air mattress in the priest’s living room on Aug. 12, the night Perez allegedly plied him with beer before fondling him in his sleep and snapping photos.
In Sacramento, Ojeda occasionally stayed overnight at the home of the girl, according to prosecutors. Ojeda is accused of groping her in her bedroom, a bathroom and the swimming pool changing room from the time of his ordination through June 30, 2009. He was charged on seven counts of lewd and lascivious behavior.
The charges came last November, two years after the alleged abuse ended, when the Diocese received a detailed voicemail from one of the girl’s parents.
The church called police and child protective services within hours of receiving the message, said Kevin Eckery, spokesman for the Sacramento diocese. Ojeda was arrested the following evening.
One of his first visitors in jail was his confidant from Mount Angel.
“Father Perez came down right after the charges against Ojeda, and he stayed for almost a week,” Hernandez recalled.
Abuse charges, handled two ways
Nine months later, Perez is the one behind bars.
There are subtle differences in how the church’s response has played out in each case.
In Oregon, the Portland archdiocese staked Perez the money for a Cadillac legal defense — a controversial move. Perez hired Marc Blackman, known for getting high-profile clients the best possible deal. The Archdiocese issued a news release Friday defending its decision.
In California, Eckery said, the diocese refused to post Ojeda’s bond and prohibited raising money for his defense on church property.
Sacramento church officials took the public relations offensive early on. Bishop Jaime Soto called a news conference and ordered priests to share a message about “credible allegations of sexual abuse” against Ojeda. Nearly 1 million Catholics from the San Francisco Bay to the Oregon border would have heard the church’s appeal, in English and Spanish, for potential victims, witnesses or tipsters to contact police.
In Portland, priests were provided with a similar message to share with parishioners if they chose.
The Sacramento diocese views the Ojeda case as a chance to break from the past, Eckery said.
“We’ve had a lot of experience dealing with civil cases,” Eckery said. “With the criminal, well, you just know you have to do things differently. There’s an opportunity here to actually see justice done that was missing in other cases.”
Supporters keep faith
Today, the priests await trial.
Bail was initially set at $5 million for Ojeda, a U.S. citizen, and later reduced to $700,000. Perez, a legal resident who faces deportation if convicted, remains locked up without bail.
In Sacramento, supporters set up a Father Uriel Facebook group and a Padre Uriel PayPal account that raised more than $28,000 in donations toward his release on bail in January. As with Perez, Ojeda managed to find top-notch legal counsel: Jesse Ortiz, billed in a news report as “the hottest defense lawyer going in the Sacramento County courthouse.”
In Woodburn, parishioners offered to house Perez if released. They included the parish secretary, Monica Hernandez Torres, whose child’s god-father is Perez.
The Rev. Hernandez, who attended seminary with Perez and Ojeda, said he fears victims are forgotten when parishioners and staffers focus prayers on accused priests.
“We have to pray for Father Uriel, for Father Angel, yes, but we also have to pray for the little girl and the little boy,” Hernandez said. “They need our support and prayer, the four of them. We cannot take sides.”
— Kimberly A.C. Wilson