For 2 Decades, in 3 Countries, Priest Left a Trail of Sex Abuse

New York Times/April 20, 2002
By Dean E. Murphy with Juan Forero

The Rev. Enrique Díaz Jiménez is a priest from Colombia who has ministered during the past 25 years in the best international tradition of the Roman Catholic Church.

Likable and hard-working, he has led popular charismatic services for Spanish-speaking immigrants in New York. He has taken needy children on spiritual retreats from the shantytowns and coastal villages of Venezuela. And he has served in working-class parishes of Bogotá.

But Father Díaz, 59, has also left an international trail of deceit and manipulation, betraying the trust of parishioners in three countries while sexually abusing dozens of boys over two decades, according to interviews and a review of criminal records and church documents in the United States, Venezuela and Colombia.

Father Díaz is not just another bad priest whose sad and corrupt story carries sudden resonance in this period of scrutiny for the Catholic Church. His story is different and significant because the totality of his crimes, and the degree to which they were ignored or overlooked in several countries, illustrate a problem that seems to know no national boundaries.

As Pope John Paul II prepares for a meeting next week with American cardinals to discuss the sexual abuse scandal in the United States, Father Díaz's record highlights the challenge that bishops face in preventing bad priests from exploiting the vast international presence of the church.

Bishop Thomas V. Daily of the Diocese of Brooklyn, in an exchange of correspondence with a Venezuelan bishop in 1991 about allegations against Father Díaz, praised the priest's work in his diocese even as a 60-count indictment was pending against him in Queens on child sexual abuse charges. Later that year, after pleading guilty to three counts of sexual abuse in the case, Father Díaz was deported to Venezuela, where the pattern of victimizing young boys continued unabated.

And so it went throughout Father Díaz's ministry. Moving from country to country, from parish to parish, from victim to victim, he was often held unaccountable by church officials and was treated delicately by some law enforcement authorities, the interviews and documents show.

In the most recent case, Father Díaz was arrested in November and charged with molesting two teenage boys, this time in Bogotá, where he was working as a priest despite the New York conviction and the suspension of his priest's license in Venezuela. At the time of the arrest, he had been living with a teenager, who was then 18, for three years, the Colombian authorities said.

Contacted in Bogotá, Father Díaz declined several requests to be interviewed.

"If you are a bad guy as a priest, the system allows you to go all over," said the Rev. C. John McCloskey, director of the Catholic Information Center in Washington. "In some places you can go to a new diocese and even get false papers. The people doing this are con men. And if they are with that disease, sexual abuse, or pedophilia, they repeat and they do whatever it takes to repeat. Being a priest is an excellent cover."

Large Gaps in Oversight

The fragmented structure of the Catholic Church internationally makes it difficult to keep track of priests like Father Díaz because there is no central clearinghouse over the movement of clergymen, church officials and Catholic scholars said. "It is kind of a bishop-to-bishop thing," Bill Ryan, a spokesman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said of the exchange of information about priests between dioceses. "If a priest comes from a foreign country, the diocese would check with the diocese where he came from."

A chronic shortage of priests in the United States and elsewhere has led to regular movements of priests around the world, further blurring the lines of authority and jurisdiction. Father Díaz first came to the United States from Venezuela in 1983 because of a pressing need in Queens and Brooklyn for Spanish-speaking priests.

It can be easy to slip through the cracks. During several of his nearly eight years in New York, Father Díaz lived in an administrative no man's land in which no church authority was actively watching him. His official three-year assignment to the Brooklyn diocese ended in August 1986, but he applied to remain in New York. While the diocese discussed where to place him next, he traveled back and forth between Venezuela and New York, sexually abusing boys in both places, according to interviews with church officials and victims.

Communication among bishops in the United States, Venezuela and Colombia was so inadequate that Father Díaz was able to find parish work in each country despite a mounting record of abuse and allegations of abuse. The examples ranged from unconfirmed suspicions among church officials and teachers throughout the 1980's to a Venezuelan bishop's decision to suspend his priest's license in 1996 for 20 years after 18 boys who were preparing for their first holy communion accused him of abuse.

One of the most consequential breakdowns in communications occurred when Father Díaz was deported by the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service to Venezuela after he was convicted in 1991 of sexually abusing three altar boys from St. Leo's Church in Corona, Queens.

Upon arriving in Venezuela, Father Díaz was picked up at Simón Bolívar International Airport by the vicar for the Diocese of Vargas, the Rev. Javier Porras. Father Porras and other Venezuelan church officials were aware of his criminal problems in New York, but had been persuaded by Father Díaz that the accusations were false, Father Porras said in an interview. "He said it was slander, all lies," he said.

Father Díaz was given a new assignment as a priest in Punta de Mulatos, a neighborhood in La Guaira, a northern town. Once he was there, rumors about him and some boys at the small village chapel began circulating. Later, after he was transferred to San José Obrero in Mamo, another parish in the Vargas diocese, the 18 boys, who were mostly 10 or 11, came forward.

"He threatened the children, that if they did something, or reported something, they would go to hell," Father Porras said.

In a letter written to the Vargas bishop on Feb. 7, 1991, just five months before Father Díaz's deportation from the United States, Bishop Daily of Brooklyn advised him that Father Díaz was "experiencing a very difficult situation" in New York because of the criminal case against him. But the Brooklyn bishop did not try to dissuade the Venezuelan bishop from welcoming him back.

"We have never had a single problem, and everything we have to say is positive," Bishop Daily wrote to Bishop Francisco de Guruceaga Iturriza of the Vargas diocese. He went on to say that officials in the Brooklyn diocese were praying so "this difficult situation is resolved."

In an interview in Caracas, where he now lives in semiretirement, Bishop de Guruceaga said he was bitter about the experience and felt betrayed by Father Díaz, who, with a strong and magnetic personality, had a long history of being able to talk himself out of difficult situations.

In some parishes where accusations were made, he rallied supporters to sign petitions in his defense. In the late 1980's, when a teacher at a school in the coffee-growing town of Mesa Bolívar accused him of molesting boys there, Father Díaz called a faculty meeting and turned everyone against the teacher, according to some who attended the meeting. A local priest who was made aware of the complaints, the Rev. Alfredo Torres, said he gladly dropped the issue and had no interest in going to the police. "The way I saw it, I understood the problem would be resolved by him leaving," Father Torres said.

Bishop de Guruceaga knew about the criminal charges against Father Díaz, but blamed Bishop Daily of Brooklyn for not sending a stronger signal about their veracity. It was Bishop de Guruceaga who ultimately suspended Father Díaz's license five years after his Queens conviction. But the bishop said he did not involve the police because "it would have been a great scandal, and all the energies of the church would have been spent dealing with those who would take advantage the Protestants and the communists."

"If the bishop of New York would have suspended him, not for 20 years, but for 2 or 3 years to allow for reflection, then we would not have this problem," the bishop said. "I would not have received him."

A spokesman for Bishop Daily, Frank De Rosa, said Father Díaz was the responsibility of his home archdiocese, in Mérida, Venezuela, not of church officials in Brooklyn. In that regard, in April 1992, about nine months after Father Díaz's deportation, the Brooklyn diocese wrote a letter to the archbishop in Mérida that referred to Father Díaz's "painful situation" in New York and his guilty plea a year earlier.

"Our responsibility would have been to respond to the bishop for whose diocese he was still a member, and that is what was done," Mr. De Rosa said.

The 1992 letter by Msgr. Otto L. Garcia, the vicar general in Brooklyn, also sought information about any previous accusations in Venezuela involving Father Díaz, while describing the priest's "exemplary" work for the diocese in Brooklyn.

Delicate Case for Prosecutors

The handling of Father Díaz's case in Queens is instructive in another way, reflecting some of the difficulties and sensitivities confronted by prosecutors. With the issue of sexual abuse by priests now at the top of the church's agenda in the United States, civil authorities are pressuring bishops to be more forthcoming in pursuing criminal cases. But as the Díaz case shows, even prosecutors can be ambivalent in their pursuit of accusations against priests.

Even now, 11 years later, the assistant district attorney in Queens who handled the Díaz case would not speak to a reporter about it, and the district attorney, Richard A. Brown, refused a request to make public the office's internal file on Father Díaz, citing the confidentiality surrounding sex crimes.

In 1990, three boys from St. Leo's Church in Corona went to the police with accusations that Father Díaz had forced them to perform oral sex over a period of more than four years. The boys, the youngest 6 when the abuse started, said the abuse occurred in a variety of places, including their home during confessionals held in a bedroom, in a changing room behind the church's altar, in the rectory and in the Jackson Heights apartment of Father Díaz's sister.

A grand jury indicted Father Díaz on 60 criminal counts of sexual abuse and endangering the welfare of a child in September 1990. In a deal forged by the district attorney's office, then led by John J. Santucci, the priest was allowed to plead guilty to three counts that involved inappropriately touching each of the boys once.

A spokesman for the district attorney's office said the deal was struck with the consent of the boys' family, something the eldest of the three victims, Kenny Rosa, now 26, denied in an interview. The lawyer for the boys, Kenneth D. Litwack, said he was never consulted.

"I was looking forward to him paying the price," Mr. Rosa said. "I remember the judge apologized to me: `I am sorry that this happened. If it was up to me, I would throw away the key, but this is the way the system works.' "

The judge, who is retired, did not recall the case. According to the district attorney's spokesman, Patrick Clark, Father Díaz faced a maximum penalty of seven years in prison. But as part of the plea bargain, criminal records show, he was given probation for five years and an "intermittent sentence" of four months in prison that allowed him to remain free on weekends, evidently so that he could continue to function as a priest.

"This sentence is usually served on weekends, but in the case of Father Díaz, in order to avoid raising the question as to the celebration of Mass on Sunday, he may be serving the sentence at Rikers Island, from Monday to Wednesday or from Wednesday to Friday," Monsignor Garcia, the vicar general, wrote at the time in a confidential diocesan file kept on Father Díaz.

That note and other diocesan correspondence relating to Father Díaz have been handed over to Mr. Litwack in a civil lawsuit brought in 1990 by Mr. Rosa, a brother and a nephew, who were the three victims in Corona. Mr. Litwack, who was once a Bronx prosecutor, said a weekend plea for a pedophile was unusual. "This only happened because the guy was a priest," he said.

A letter to diocesan officials written by a priest who was working as a part-time counselor for the district attorney's office indicated that the assistant district attorney handling the Díaz case, Therese M. Lendino, believed it would be "hard to get a jury of 12 people to come in with a guilty plea against a priest." The letter mentioned that the judge in the case was Catholic, as is Ms. Lendino.

The priest, the Rev. James T. Smith, wrote: "It is hard for non-Catholics to understand us when the non-Catholics are trying to do the right thing in the criminal justice system. It is even harder for the Catholics." Last month, Father Smith himself was placed on administrative leave by the Brooklyn diocese because of separate accusations of sexual abuse against him.

Mr. Clark said the paramount issue in the plea bargain was to spare "the victims the possible trauma of being required to testify," but he also noted that a trial would have been difficult because "there was substantial community and parish support" for Father Díaz. He also said prosecutors were concerned that the case could be muddied because of a family dispute involving relatives of both Father Díaz and the boys.

"He was handled like any other defendant facing these kind of charges," Mr. Clark said.

In the end, Father Díaz did not complete his brief prison sentence. On July 18, 1991, the immigration service took him to Kennedy Airport and placed him on a flight to Caracas. Father Díaz did not fight his deportation. Civil authorities at the airport in Venezuela were probably unaware of Father Díaz's criminal past. An immigration service spokeswoman said the agency did not notify countries of criminal deportations before 1996.

A Diocese Washes Its Hands

The role of law enforcement is significant, because the Brooklyn diocese more or less washed its hands of Father Díaz once the boys in Corona went to the police, the church correspondence indicates. The diocese did not conduct an investigation into what had occurred, and the victims say diocesan officials made no effort to reach out to them in a pastoral or counseling way.

In an internal memorandum dated April 28, 1991, a few weeks after Father Díaz pleaded guilty, Bishop Daily asked, "Is anyone getting any help for Father Díaz - psychological or psychiatric?" A hand-written note on the memo also asked about the victims, "Should we be doing anything in this regard?"

The answer on both accounts was no.

"The determination was made that we would not interfere in any way," Monsignor Garcia, the vicar general, said in a deposition taken in the lawsuit filed by the Queens victims.

In a separate memo to Monsignor Garcia about a week later, Bishop Daily indicated how serious he believed the problems surrounding Father Díaz were.

"I wonder if you might speak to me about the possibility of giving a summary of the Díaz case to the papal nuncio in case we get his inquiry, and even if we don't, it might be well to keep him informed because of the magnitude of the suit and even possible interest by the Holy See through the Congregation for Clergy," Bishop Daily wrote, referring to various Vatican offices.

Father Díaz's problems were touched upon later during a meeting of bishops in Venezuela, but the subject was abruptly dropped when a Venezuelan church official made it clear to a visiting auxiliary bishop from Brooklyn that he did not want to discuss it, according to the visiting bishop, Rene A. Valero. Bishop Valero, who is from Venezuela, said in an interview that he did not tell the Venezuelan church officials anything about Father Díaz's criminal conviction. "I didn't feel it was in my purview to press the matter," he said.

In the late 1990's, when church officials in Venezuela finally suspended his license, Father Díaz packed up and returned to his native Colombia, to the relief of church officials in Vargas, said Father Porras, the vicar there. Church officials in Colombia apparently knew nothing of his reputation or criminal past, and he easily found work again as a priest - and, once again, more boys to molest.

Officials in the Archdiocese of Bogotá said they found out about Father Díaz only about three years ago when the parents of two boys turned up at the chancellor's office complaining about a sexually abusive priest. Officials there said that they had no record of Father Díaz, but that they later found out that he was indeed working in a parish.

Father Díaz had become friendly with some families in the parish and was offering private Masses in their homes. Eventually, the families introduced him to the local pastor, who offered him work without asking to see his credentials.

Soon Father Díaz was befriending boys again, and was eventually arrested and accused of having oral and anal sex with two, 13 and 14, from a neighboring poor parish. One of the boys told the Bogotá police that they liked Father Diaz and that they first had sex together after the priest lured them to his apartment with an offer of lunch.

"He seemed like a priest," the 14-year-old said. "He showed us his driver's license where he was dressed in the black and white clothes like the ones used by priests."

On Jan. 22 of this year, Father Díaz was given a sentence of 53 months and 10 days of house arrest, which is now being heard on appeal. In the meantime, he is living in his apartment in a pleasant neighborhood near a park and a church.

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