Long Beach priest pleads not guilty to sex abuse charge

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The Long Beach California Press-Telegram

Posted:   07/25/2012 04:22:27 PM PDT
Updated:   07/25/2012 07:10:14 PM PDT

By Tracy Manzer, Staff Writer

Supporters of the Rev. Luis Jose Cuevas pray after his arraignment at Long Beach Superior Court Wednesday. Cuevas is charged with multiple counts of sexual abuse involving one 17-year-old girl and two women at St. Anthanasius in North Long Beach. (Stephen Carr / Press-Telegram)

The Rev. Luis Jose Cuevas,right, with his defense attorney George F. Bird Jr., during his arraignment at the Long Beach Superior Court Wednesday, is charged with multiple counts of sexual abuse involving one 17-year-old girl and two women at St. Anthanasius in North Long Beach. (Stephen Carr / Press-Telegram)

LONG BEACH — A Catholic priest once assigned to a North Long Beach church pleaded not guilty Wednesday to a charge of sexual abuse involving two women and a teen girl.

The Rev. Luis Jose Cuevas, the former parish priest at St. Athanasius Catholic Church, 5390 Linden Ave., was formally charged with nine counts of sexual assault following accusations from three alleged victims.

Cuevas’ attorney, George Bird, repeatedly denied the allegations Wednesday, noting the massive community support for the 67-year-old priest demonstrated by nearly 100 members of the church who came to the Long Beach Superior Court.

“People who know Father Cuevas know what’s in his heart,” Bird said gesturing at the crowd of parishioners gathered in front of the courthouse Wednesday afternoon.

“And there are a thousand more (supporters not seen Wednesday),” Bird said as the group shouted, “Yes, yes!” and cheered.

Cuevas’ supporters also held a prayer circle and told reporters the priest was wrongly accused. Some said the alleged victims had troubled pasts and were not to be believed.

Maria Zambrano, a member of the Catholic Missionary Movement in which Cuevas was extremely active, said she did not know any of the alleged victims, but said she has worked with the priest for many years. She said she attended numerous retreats with Cuevas and she was unaware of any inappropriate behavior.

“I can only attest to the side we know of him,” Zambrano said.

“He understands people’s needs, he understands people’s sufferings, he has compassion for people, he exemplifies these traits.”

Inside the courthouse, Bird did most of the talking as Cuevas stood quietly before Judge James Otto.

The defense lawyer argued at length to have his client’s bail lowered from the initial $1 million to $50,000, and also asked the court to consider releasing Cuevas on his own recognizance.

“This wild allegation that he would flee to Mexico is (absurd),” Bird said. “He is a United States citizen.”

Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Zapeda countered that Cuevas’ was uncooperative with authorities in the investigation and said his fleeing the Long Beach area to a home he shares with two other people in San Jacinto, Calif., showed he was a potential flight risk.

The case came to light in April, police said, when two women accused Cuevas of sexual battery, initially reporting the incidents to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles before filing a police report.

When an announcement was made at St. Athanasius that Cuevas was being investigated and other possible victims were urged to come forward, the 17-year-old girl contacted authorities and accused Cuevas of repeated incidents of inappropriate touching dating back to when she was 14, police and prosecutors said Wednesday.

A total of nine counts were filed: Eight misdemeanor sexual battery counts, and one felony count of lewd acts on a minor under the age of 16.

The prosecutor noted there are at least 16 additional allegations of past sexual abuse that could not be filed due to the statute of limitations.

Bird said the allegations listed in the criminal complaint involved Cuevas allegedly touching a breast over clothing with both women. He added that the allegations made by the teen girl were similar.

The defense attorney denied all the claims, and said the contact was accidental and made as the priest hugged the alleged victims.

“He has served his community his entire life, he has no prior allegations of any kind,” Bird said.

Cuevas was arrested Monday, in San Jacinto, and was brought to the Long Beach city jail where he was initially held in lieu of $1 million bail.

While prosecutors agreed the bail amount should be lowered, they did not agree with defense claims that Cuevas was a good candidate for being released on his own recognizance.

Zapeda asked that bail be set at $260,000, or $100,000 for the felony count and an additional $20,000 for each misdemeanor count.

Judge Otto agreed.

Otto also ordered that Cuevas, if released on bond, must stay away from the church and all children, surrender his passport to authorities and not change his residence.

Outside court, members of the parish vowed to help raise money for Cuevas’ bail, noting the Archdiocese is not supporting the priest.

“I don’t understand what the Archdiocese is doing,” Zambrano said. “But I believe the pressure they are under, because of all the other cases of abuse, is making the church … act very cautiously.”

In a statement read at all Masses at the parish over the weekend, the Rev. Francis Ilano, another priest at the church, said Cuevas was relieved of his duties as pastor at St. Athanasius.

“The Archdiocese takes all such matters seriously and considers both allegations to be credible,” Ilano said in the statement, which was given to the Press-Telegram Tuesday. “This week the Archdiocese took action to remove Father Cuevas from all ministry and he will be living privately pending the outcome of these matters.”

Cuevas’ supporters said Wednesday the accused priest had already been transferred to a church in El Monte when the statement was read at Mass last weekend.

Los Angeles Archdiocese Spokeswoman Carolina Guevara said Wednesday she was not aware of Cuevas going to any other church after he was relieved of his duties at St. Athanasius.

It is the church’s policy, she said, to remove anyone accused of such misconduct pending the outcome of an investigation.

The first of two statements was made at Masses at St. Athanasius explaining Cuevas was relieved of his duties after allegations were made by two women and an investigation had been launched, she said.

“It was after that first announcement was made that the Archdiocese received the allegation concerning a minor,” Guevara said. “That allegation was reported to the authorities the same day … and a representative from the Archdiocese accompanied the minor and a family member to the police station that day.

A second statement was read to parishioners last weekend explaining Cuevas was removed “from all ministry and was to be living privately,” Guevara said.

In the statements, the Archdiocese urged anyone with similar complaints to contact church and law enforcement authorities.

The investigation remains ongoing, police said Wednesday.

Anyone with information can call the LBPD Sex Crimes tip line at 562-570-7878. Anonymous tips may be submitted by text or email at www.tipsoft.com.

tracy.manzer@presstelegram.com, 562-714-2150, twitter.com/tmanzer


Father Jose Luis Cuevas, Long Beach Priest, Charged With Sexual Battery on Church

LA Weekly Blogs

Wed., Jul. 25 2012 at 10:30 AM

By Simone Wilson

Father Cuevas.

The latest sex scandal and PR nightmare for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles comes by way of northern Long Beach, near Compton:

Father Jose Luis Cuevas, 67, the longtime head priest at St. Athanasius Church, is being charged with “nine counts of sexual assault” for years of allegedly molesting female congregants, including a 17-year-old girl, say Long Beach police.

His arrest and removal from the ministry have been quite dramatic:

Archdiocese officials informed attendees of the church’s weekend services that their trusted leader would be removed “from all ministry and he will be living privately pending the outcome of these matters,” according to City News Service.

St. Athanasius Church.

Then, on Monday, Long Beach cops showed up to an unidentified home in San Jacinto to handcuff Cuevas and jail him under $1 million bail. They say they were assisted by officers from the U.S. Marshals Service — meaning his crimes are considered a federal concern.

Here are the priest’s alleged deeds (and police believe he had additional victims):

In April 2012, the Long Beach Police Department received information from two female adults that reported being the victims of a sexual battery. … Both women initially reported the incidents to the Archdiocese, and then subsequently filed the police report. During the investigation, a third victim came forward. This victim, a 17-year-old female, reported repeated incidents of inappropriate touching that occurred over a two-year period involving the same suspect.

Regarding the 17-year-old, the Los Angeles District Attorney is slapping Cuevas with one felony county of “lewd acts against a child.”

And as for the two adult women: The California Penal Code says that “sexual battery” charges can be applied to…

… any person who touches an intimate part of another person while that person is unlawfully restrained by the accused or an accomplice, and if the touching is against the will of the person touched and is for the purpose of sexual arousal, sexual gratification, or sexual abuse.

According to the church’s website, congregants include “3,000 families from a variety of ethnic groups. Some of those groups are Latino, some white, some Filipino, some Korean, some African, and some African American.”

Investigators found that Cuevas has been living “on church grounds” during his seven years as priest. Indeed, St. Athanasius does appear to host some sort of barracks at its location on Linden Avenue:

Father Cuevas urges members of the community via the church’s site to contact him about “how we may be able to serve your spiritual or material needs.”

The L.A. branch of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese, largest in the nation, has also been the most plagued by sexual abuse. In 2007, hoping to put a whopping 508 accusations of sexual abuse behind them, archdiocese officials reportedly paid out a record-breaking sum of $660 million in a mass settlement with the victims. Most famously, young Rita Milla claimed she was abused by seven Catholic priests over a four-year period, including one who gave her a baby.

Update: Todd Tamberg, director of media relations for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, sent us the following statement.
The adults first came forward to the Archdiocese with reports of wrongdoing by Cuevas toward them as adults. We urged them to make a police report. At that time, we bounced Cuevas from ministry and made announcements about Cuevas at St. Anastasia’s at all Masses the following Sunday.

As a result of the announcements, a minor in the parish came forward to the archdiocese with a report against Cuevas. The archdiocese immediately reported this to the LBPD. An archdiocesan Victims Assistance staff member accompanied the minor and an adult relative to the police station.

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