Oregon priest, a friend of Sacramento-area priest accused of molestation, faces similar charges

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The Sacramento Bee

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012 – 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012 – 9:43 am

By Cynthia Hubert

The Rev. Uriel Ojeda, left, serves Communion for the first time beside the Rev. Angel Perez, his friend, in 2007. Both face molestation charges.

 They were as close as brothers.

The Rev. Uriel Ojeda and the Rev. Angel Perez took their spiritual training together at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon beginning in the late 1990s, and they shared a bond forged by similar cultural backgrounds and spiritual philosophies.

Both had roots in Mexico and ministered to heavily Latino congregations, Ojeda’s in Northern California and Perez’s near Salem in Oregon. Both were revered by their parishioners, who praised them for their tireless work on behalf of children and the poor and sick.

Both entered the priesthood at a time of turmoil in the Catholic Church over sexual-abuse scandals, and as the church eagerly sought to accommodate a growing Spanish-speaking congregation.

In the changing Catholic church, Ojeda and Perez were rising stars.

Until it all fell apart.

Today, separated by hundreds of miles, both priests stand accused of crimes against children that, if proved, could send them to prison and strip them forever of their collars and vestments.

In Sacramento County, Ojeda, 33, is facing charges of molesting a girl younger than 14 while he served at Holy Rosary parish in Woodland and Our Lady of Mercy parish in Redding between 2007 and 2009. He was arrested late last year and is free on bail. His trial is scheduled for December, but it is likely to be postponed until the spring of 2013, his lawyer said.

Perez, 46, has been held without bail in the Marion County jail since August, when he was arrested and charged with child abuse after a 12-year-old boy said he fondled him in the priest’s living room in Woodburn, Ore. Police said he brought the child home from a church party, gave him beer and touched him after he fell asleep. Perez, who has yet to enter a plea, is a legal U.S. resident but not a citizen and could be deported if convicted.

Ojeda has pleaded not guilty to seven counts of felony child abuse. Prosecutors allege that the priest, who occasionally visited the girl’s family home, inappropriately touched, hugged and kissed her during a two-year period ending in 2009. Ojeda “adamantly denies the accusations made against him,” said his Sacramento lawyer, Jesse Ortiz.

In Oregon, Perez told police he was drunk and could not remember what happened on the night the Woodburn boy claims the priest fondled him.

Police said Perez, pastor of St. Luke Catholic Church in town, chased the boy down the street, wearing only his underwear, after the child fled the priest’s home late that night. He later drove to the boy’s home and apologized to his parents, according to a police affidavit. “He stated he got down on his knees and begged for forgiveness,” the affidavit reads.

News of the criminal charges against the two priests, who visited each other’s churches, vacationed together in Mexico and met each other’s families, has shaken their church leaders and congregation.

Perez, who was ordained in 2002 in the Portland Diocese, served as a spiritual mentor to the younger Ojeda after they met in seminary. A day after he was ordained at Sacramento’s Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in 2007, Ojeda served the Eucharist for the first time with Perez by his side. On many occasions, Ojeda drove his yellow pickup truck to the Salem area to visit his friend.

The fact that both now stand accused of abusing children “is a sad coincidence,” said Kevin Eckery, spokesman for the Sacramento Diocese.

“Virtually everyone here is shocked that this has happened,” said Bud Bunce, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Portland. “We have placed such a great emphasis on child protection, so to think that something like this could happen is stunning.”

The Sacramento and Portland dioceses, like others across the country, offer priests and other church workers regular training in maintaining a “safe environment” with children, said Bunce and Eckery.

According to the Sacramento Diocese’s code of conduct for priests and others, “church workers shall never be alone with a youth” during any activity related to the parish or church. They may “never serve or supply alcohol” to people younger than 21, and “will not provide shared, private, overnight accommodations” to an individual youth, according to the document.

Like Ojeda, Perez was a popular and widely respected pastor whose Mexican roots and dedication to his religious mission resonated with parishioners, said Bunce and others. Bespectacled and soft-spoken, he displayed a different style away from the pulpit than did the gregarious, fun-loving Ojeda.

“Father Uriel is a youthful and playful man,” said the Rev. Francisco Hernandez, a priest in the vocations office of the Sacramento Diocese. “Father Angel was a great priest, too, with a fatherly love for his people. But he is a little quieter.”

Despite their differences in age and style, the two priests “were the best of friends, like brothers,” said Hernandez. “Both brought their love of family to their communities. They were beloved by their parishes.”

Now, members of those communities are suffering the effects of a worldwide scandal that has hit too close to home.

In Oregon, members of Perez’s former parish have voiced support and offered him housing should he be released from jail, according to published reports. Ojeda received the same offers from former congregants in Woodland and Redding, who attended his court hearings and raised money toward his bail.

Leaders of the two dioceses, however, seem to be taking very different approaches to the high-profile criminal cases against their priests.

Both have called for prayers for the priests and their possible victims. But while the archbishop of Portland, John Vlazny, has visited Perez in jail, arranged for other priests to see him and even offered to loan him money for legal expenses, Ojeda has had no such support from Bishop Jaime Soto and the Sacramento Diocese, according to his lawyer.

Vlazny has taken heat for his loan offer to Perez, even though the money is “not from the archbishop’s appeal or any other designated fund,” he said in a recent public statement. “I am surprised by the strong opposition it has raised, and I am sorry that so many find it offensive and inexcusable.”

He said he saw the offer “as my obligation,” noting that priests earn small incomes and “rely on us for financial assistance in extraordinary circumstances.”

Like Ojeda, Perez has hired a private lawyer with a strong track record for handling difficult cases.

Ojeda’s attorney accepted his case without a guarantee of full payment, and supporters told The Bee this week that they continue to raise funds toward his defense and for his living expenses.

Ortiz, the attorney, said Ojeda feels betrayed and abandoned by the Sacramento Diocese, and has suffered “a complete lack of trust” of church leaders as a result of their handling of his case.

Eckery said the diocese has asked priests who do not report to the diocese to visit with Ojeda, but “he made his own arrangements for virtually everything.”

Officials decided early on, Eckery said, that “it would be inappropriate to pick favorites and intercede” on the priest’s behalf considering that the girl who made the accusations is part of the church as well.

“This is a decision made by the two bishops, and they obviously are approaching the problems differently,” Eckery said.

Even if they are exonerated in the criminal court, the men would face long odds of becoming parish priests again. They would be subject to a “church trial” by their dioceses, and the final decision on their ecclesiastic fates would rest with the Vatican in Rome, Eckery said.

“I don’t anticipate him ever serving as a priest again,” Eckery said of Ojeda.

But Ortiz said Ojeda still has hope as he awaits trial.

“Father Uriel is a priest and always will be,” he said. “He will continue his fight all the way to the Vatican once the criminal case is over.”

Hernandez said he considers both accused priests friends, and hopes that society “will not judge and condemn them permanently.”

“Any mother or any father would say that a child has to pay the consequences for what he has done,” Hernandez said. “If you are innocent, come back home. If you are guilty, pay the consequences and welcome back. You are always my son.”

Portland’s archbishop expressed similar sentiments in an open letter to Perez’s congregants last month.

“We know deep in our hearts that God’s forgiveness is extended to the most despicable criminals,” Vlazny wrote. “Can we extend forgiveness to Father Perez? I hope so. Forgiveness, however, does not exclude the consequences of justice.”

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