Details emerge after priest removed

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The Record, Stockton/January 8, 2010

Stockton - A day after the Diocese of Stockton revealed that Roman Catholic priest Leo Suarez was relieved of duties for admitting to sexual misconduct with a minor 20 years ago, it was learned that the child was a girl, a police report was first filed in Hughson in September and that no one has contacted the diocese indicating there might be more than one victim.

Revelations of yet another priest in the diocese caught up in a sex-abuse case did spark strong reaction from SNAP, the St. Louis-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, and led one Oakdale woman to conduct a protest Thursday afternoon outside the Modesto Catholic church where Suarez last worked.

It was learned Thursday from a diocesan official that Suarez's victim was a girl, but that official immediately regretted revealing that information, citing the victim's desire to remain anonymous.

Sister Terry Davis, communications director for the diocese that serves more than 215,000 Catholics in a six-county region, said that between Wednesday and Thursday, she had learned that a high-ranking diocesan official, Monsignor Richard Ryan, did contact Hughson Police Services as soon as he learned about the incident.

"It's our standard procedure," Davis said.

Hughson is the small city in central Stanislaus County where St. Anthony's parish is located. St. Anthony's is the church Suarez was assigned to when the incident took place.

"Since the priest himself came forward with this admission, there was not an accusation. The victim did not come forward with that information," Davis said, adding that church officials subsequently contacted the victim. No specific details were forthcoming from the diocese about when or where the incident occurred, when church officials notified police, or any details about the victim - who would now be an adult - or whether the victim has contacted law enforcement or sought legal help. Suarez's whereabouts are unknown except that he is at a residential treatment center and will no longer be allowed to serve as a priest.

The Stanislaus County Sheriff's Office, which provides police services to Hughson, could not provide further information Thursday, but spokesman Tim David did say a report was initially filed in September. Sgt. Larry Seymour said the case remains under investigation.

SNAP national director David Clohessy said his 9,000-member organization, made up of sex-abuse victims, is "very troubled" by the way Stockton Bishop Stephen Blaire is handling the case.

"He continues to urge people to call church officials and not police officials. They made promises in 2002 to be more open and transparent. We don't think this is happening," Clohessy said. "The secrecy disturbs us."

SNAP member Jennifer Chapin of Oakdale, who described herself as a "cradle Catholic" who no longer trusts the church after she was sexually abused by a member of the clergy, felt compelled to stage a demonstration outside Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Modesto even though she does not know Suarez or have any connection to the case.

She believes there are other victims.

"Because Leo Suarez has been an active priest until this last year - and usually when there is one victim, there is more, so this is an active criminal case. If there is any more, we would encourage anyone to call the police department," Chapin said.

Chapin said Blaire is "doing the bare minimum, by taking few or no steps to seek out others hurt by Suarez. Blaire has vast resources - dozens of staff and churches and parish bulletins and Web site - he could use to help find others who were molested and are suffering. Blaire has an enormous 'bully pulpit.' He could and should personally go to each church where Suarez worked, and emphatically beg victims and witnesses to step forward, call police, get help and start healing."

Suarez also worked at St. Stanislaus in Modesto (1991-92), St. George's in Stockton (1992-97), pastor at St. Edward's in Stockton (1997-2006) and Sacred Heart in Turlock (2008-09).

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