Dallas -- International police say Catholic leaders in Central America are hindering their search for an admitted child-molesting priest who has ties to a prominent papal candidate in Honduras.
Meanwhile, prosecutors in Costa Rica are investigating whether Bishop Angel San Casimiro broke the law by aiding the Rev. Enrique Vasquez, who fled a criminal investigation in that country in 1998 and has worked in ministry abroad for most of the time since.
"Angel San Casimiro is not cooperating with justice," said Emilio Leon, an investigator with the Interpol law enforcement agency in Costa Rica. "He must know where Enrique Vasquez is."
The bishop has previously denied wrongdoing and said he didn't know Vasquez's whereabouts. He did not respond to recent interview requests.
The priest vanished in March after working several months in the Archdiocese of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Nicaraguan immigration officials say he entered their country by land from Honduras as recently as July 1.
Church officials in Nicaragua say that they don't know where he is - and that if they find out, they won't tell law enforcement.
"Our function is not to alert the police," said Bishop Juan Abelardo Mata, secretary of the Nicaraguan Bishops Conference. "We would alert religious authorities."
His stance against cooperating with criminal investigators echoes statements made in 2002 by fellow high-ranking members of the Salesians of Don Bosco religious order, such as Tegucigalpa Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez. The cardinal, considered one of the leading Latin American contenders to succeed Pope John Paul II, employed Vasquez in a remote parish until Interpol picked up his trail earlier this year.
The pope's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, did not respond to questions about whether the global Catholic leader concurs with the Salesians' defiant stance. John Paul is vacationing at a Salesian mountain retreat in northern Italy's Alps, as he has in previous summers.
The Salesian order - the world's third-largest - has shielded several priests accused of sexual abuse by moving them across international borders, a recent Dallas Morning News investigation found. The newspaper's yearlong inquiry documented that many other Catholic leaders, in dioceses and other orders around the world, also have protected clerics this way. Neither San Casimiro nor Vasquez, for example, is a Salesian.
In a statement recently issued from the order's headquarters in Rome, Salesian leaders say they don't hide accused priests abroad. They have refused to discuss specific cases.
Interpol has previously said that Tegucigalpa church officials "got rid of" Vasquez after the hunt for him intensified. Rodriguez, the highest-ranking Catholic official in Honduras, has declined The News' interview requests.
Costa Rican prosecutors revived an inquiry this week into whether San Casimiro should face charges for protecting Vasquez, who fled his native country in 1998, one day after he came under criminal investigation. A previous inquiry into the bishop's behavior, begun in 2003, was dropped for what officials called a lack of evidence.
Prosecutor Henry Esquivel said the case was reopened because new evidence has emerged since The News reported on the Vasquez case last month and Central American newspapers began doing follow-up stories. He would not discuss the evidence.
The investigation could take several months or more, Esquivel said. One possible charge, he said, is "personal favoritism," which under Costa Rican law includes helping someone elude a criminal investigation and failing to report a crime.
San Casimiro has told The News that in the mid-1990s he freed Vasquez to work in the United States and other countries after the priest admitted abusing a 10-year-old altar boy. Criminal authorities didn't learn of this until notified by child-welfare officials a few years later, after the boy became severely depressed and was sent to a mental hospital.
The bishop has said he didn't recommend Vasquez for any jobs abroad after authorities began investigating the priest in late 1998. But the bishop has also acknowledged that he knew where the priest was in 2000 and 2002, yet did not tell prosecutors.
Both times, Vasquez was at Casa Alberione, a clergy treatment center near Guadalajara, Mexico.
The 2000 visit came during Vasquez's three-year stint in the Archdiocese of Hartford, Conn. He served in the town of New Britain as an associate pastor and youth group leader.
Hartford church officials have said they employed Vasquez on the recommendation of the Diocese of Ciudad Quesada, Costa Rica, which San Casimiro heads. They have said there were no complaints about the priest's behavior in Connecticut.
His immediate supervisor in New Britain, the Rev. Salvatore Rosa, said he didn't know that Vasquez had gone to the treatment center.
"He may have been taking his vacation" at the time, Rosa said. "A month would not be unusual, especially if you're a priest from another country."
In the wake of recent news coverage, several more young men in Costa Rica have accused Vasquez of abusing them as boys, according to the Catholic-affiliated child protection charity Casa Alianza. At least one more criminal complaint has been filed against the priest, according to Casa Alianza.
But in the southern Honduran village of El Paraiso, where Vasquez is last known to have worked, some parishioners are still defending the fugitive.
"What they're saying about Father Enrique is a lie," said Herenia Trejo. The priest briefly visited her small home as recently as May, she said, and "he slept in the same bed as my daughters and my son."
Trejo said that Vasquez served in her village in 2003-2004 and also in the 1990s. She described him as closer to Tegucigalpa Auxiliary Bishop Roberto Camilleri than to Rodriguez.
Camilleri, whom the pope recently appointed to take over as leader of the neighboring Diocese of Comayagua, said Tuesday that he was too busy to be interviewed.
Trejo said she wanted to send a message to Vasquez: "Father Enrique, we love you, wherever you are."