Archdiocese will seek out other victims of priest

Maryland Daily Record/November 3, 2008

The Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore says it did not know until last week that a priest who once served at a Maryland church was found to have molested two of his own children.

Archdiocese spokesman Sean Caine said the church found out about the abuse when newspapers reported on a Court of Special Appeals decision dealing with the priest, Fernando Cristancho. Cristancho was at St. Ignatius in Forest Hill from 1999 to 2002, Cain said.

The appellate court upheld a grant of custody of the two children and their sister to the woman who gave birth to them. The trial judge had based his decision in part on a Department of Social Services investigation showing that sex abuse of the boys was "indicated," its strongest type of finding.

"Now that we have learned of the court's finding, the Church will publicize the statement through the Catholic Review and the parish to see if there are other victims," Caine wrote in an e-mail. "Should we receive any allegations of abuse against Cristancho stemming from his active ministry at St. Ignatius, or against any representative of the Church, we will immediately report it to the authorities and initiate a full investigation."

According to the Court of Special Appeals, Cristancho realized in his 40s that he wanted children. He convinced a platonic female friend, Dalia Fernandez, then 50, to become pregnant by in vitro fertilization using his sperm and an anonymous donor's eggs.

In November 2000, Fernandez bore triplets, two boys and a girl.

When Cristancho and Fernandez's relationship deteriorated, they began fighting over custody and visitation. Eventually, Fernandez alleged that Cristancho sexually abused the boys.

Though the appellate court said Cristancho was dismissed from St. Ignatius after church officials learned he had fathered the triplets, Caine said his "faculties to minister in the archdiocese of Baltimore" were revoked in 2002 because Cristancho refused to follow his cardinal's order. The archdiocese did not hear about the children until later, Caine wrote.

Caine said he does not know whether Cristancho has been defrocked, since such a decision is between the Vatican and a priest's home parish. Cristancho's home parish is in Colombia. The archdiocese contacted that parish and "urged that Cristancho be permanently dismissed from the clerical state," Caine wrote.

In a phone interview Friday, Cristancho said he has not been defrocked.

Cristancho denied the abuse and alleges that Fernandez fabricated the allegations to help her gain custody. He said he is "vulnerable" to abuse allegations because he is a priest.

The Department of Social Services' investigation was shoddy, he said, comparing its report to "a kindergartener making an investigation." Among other problems, the investigator never interviewed him before making her finding, he said.

The allegations were "orchestrated by Dalia Fernandez, trying to convince people I was doing it when I was not doing it," he said in an at-times emotional interview.

Cristancho also denied that he had an affair with an adult woman at another parish in Alexandria, Va., before coming to Maryland, an allegation reported in the Court of Special Appeals decision. The woman was a pregnant illegal immigrant to whom he ministered, he said Friday.

"[I] found a place for her to stay; I brought food for her," he said. "They tried to make accusations that I had an affair with that woman."

Asked how long it had been since he had seen the triplets, he gave his answer in days: "102 or 103," he said.

A small contingent of members of the anti-abuse group Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests gathered outside archdiocese headquarters in downtown Baltimore Friday morning. Speaking to the media, they said they want the church to investigate Cristancho and to lend its support to efforts to lengthen the amount of time victims of clergy child sex abuse have to file a civil lawsuit.

"I'm horrified that the church continues to do nothing to put a substantial end to this sex abuse," said Frank Dingle, of SNAP.

In addition to Dingle, the gathering was attended by three older men carrying signs, as well as two other men who identified themselves as survivors of clergy abuse. One declined to give his name, and the other asked to be identified only as Mike.

Mike said he was abused by a priest in Chicago. He decried what he sees as the church's tendency to shuffle abusive priests from parish to parish.

He also called for the church to support Maryland's General Assembly increasing the statute of limitations. The legislature has taken up the matter several times but never passed it; the church has opposed it.

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