Former Catholic priest sentenced to over 20 years in federal prison on sex abuse charge

The Post and Courier, South Carolina/February 9, 2024

By T. Michael Boddie

Columbia, South Carolina — A former Charleston priest who pleaded guilty to sexual exploitation of a minor was sentenced to 21 years and 10 months in federal prison.

Jaime Adolfo Gonzalez-Farias received the sentence Feb. 8, roughly six months after he confessed in court to traveling with an 11-year-old child across state lines to engage in sexual activity.

The official charge was transportation of a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity. He was also charged with aggravated sexual abuse of a child and coercion of a minor, but those charges were dropped when he pleaded guilty on Aug. 10, 2023.

U.S. District Judge Mary Geiger Lewis ordered 69-year-old Gonzalez-Farias to pay $14,240 in restitution to the child's family, and ruled he is to be supervised upon release from prison for the rest of his life.

"It's a terrible situation for everyone involved," Lewis said during the Feb. 8 hearing, adding that the former priest ruined his own life as well as the lives of the child he admitted to abusing and the child's family. "The impact of this just cannot be overstated."

The Diocese of Charleston released its list of South Carolina priests who have had a credible allegation of child sexual misconduct against them. The late Rev. Robert E. Spangenberg who served at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Charleston (above), was among the names. Matthew Fortner/Staff

Known as Father Gonzales, the former priest moved to South Carolina from his native Chile in 2015 and served with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston for five years, working across the state in Greer, Newberry, Laurens and Joanna.

Gonzales-Farias met an 11-year-old boy through this work in early 2020 and groomed him, calling him nicknames, texting him things like "I love you" and giving him gifts including a cell phone, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Elliott Daniels, one of the prosecutors in the case.

In November 2020, Gonzales-Farias took the child on a trip to Florida for a "beach vacation" where the U.S. Attorney's Office said the priest abused the minor by showing him pornography and masturbating in front of him — crimes Daniels said Gonzales-Farias committed in both Florida and South Carolina.

Believing the relationship to be inappropriate, the child's family reported it to Catholic authorities following the trip to Florida, and the diocese then contacted the Laurens County Sheriff's Department. Though the priest was put on administrative leave in late-2020 for inappropriate interactions with a minor, the diocese stopped short of outright alleging sexual misconduct at the time.

An allegation of sexual conduct would reach the diocese and Gonzalez-Farias's parishioners the next month, and the case was turned over to the sheriff's office and the FBI.

Three days before sentencing, Gonzales-Farias's attorneys filed a motion asking for a variance or departure to a sentence of 120 months in federal prison. His defense counsel argued that the nature of the crime, his age, his acceptance of responsibility and about two dozen letters of support from individuals on his behalf warranted a more lenient sentence.

"He was a kind, loving and respectful man of God," one individual wrote in a letter to the court on Gonzalez-Frias's behalf, according to the motion filed by the federal defense attorney, Jenny Smith. "He put so much effort into growing the church. He was respectful to everyone be that adults or children."

Smith said she believes Gonzalez-Farias "didn't live a life of crime," instead he  "lived a life on ministry."

She also argued that circumstances including the inherent loneliness of priesthood and Gonzalez-Farias's grieving over the loss of his mother during the COVID-19 pandemic added to what the former priest called an isolated incident.

"I am truly sorry to the family," Gonzalez-Farias said to the judge before his sentencing. "It will never happen again."

The prosecutor, Daniels, argued that because Gonzalez-Farias used his status as a priest to "wedge himself between the child and his parents" and manipulated adults around him into trusting him, the priest's background of service worked against the former minister rather than in his favor.

Gonzales-Farias had been a priest for 30 years, according to the FBI, and according to church records he was a visiting priest of the Diocese of San Bernardo, Chile, during his five-year stint in South Carolina. He'd cleared two background checks, one in 2015 and one in 2020.

But in November 2022, two years after the FBI took the case, Gonzalez-Farias was arrested after landing at Miami International Airport by federal officers. Once arrested, the priest admitted to showing the 11-year-old victim  pornography, touching the child's genitals and showering with the child.

Although child pornography was not one of the charges brought against Gonzalez-Farias, Daniels said the former priest's cell phone was "replete" with content indicating an interest in young boys, including candid pictures of boys taken at the airport on the same day of the arrest.

“I am grateful to law enforcement and legal authorities for their investigation and prosecution of this case," said the Most Rev. Jacques Fabre-Jeune, CS, Bishop of Charleston. "I pray that anyone hurt by Gonzalez or any clergy will find healing and peace in Christ Jesus."

The FBI's Columbia Division has been investigating to see whether there are more victims.

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