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October 28th, 2011
10:00 PM ET

Predators in plain sight: Priests accused of child abuse appear beyond the reach of law

Editor’s note: Gary Tuchman reports on allegedly abusive Catholic priests who are living, unsuspected, in communities across the country on CNN Presents, Saturday at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET on CNN.

By Gary Tuchman and Jessi Joseph, CNN

Los Angeles (CNN) - Former LAPD Detective Federico Sicard still remembers the Monday he arrived at a school to interview children who said a priest had molested them, even though the visit took place 23 years ago.

Sicard found four children at the school, Our Lady of Guadalupe in East L.A., who said they’d been abused by Nicolas Aguilar Rivera, a priest who’d recently arrived from Mexico.

But police never had a chance to interview Aguilar.

“We went to interview the priest and they told us he’s no longer here,” Sicard, who spent more than 20 years on the case, said in a recent interview. “He’s gone. He was taken to Mexico.”

Church officials said they found out about the alleged abuse on a Friday in early 1988 and met with Aguilar the next day to remove him from ministry.

According to a police report, Aguilar told church officials at that meeting that he planned to return to his native Mexico at the beginning of the following week.

The police were notified on Monday morning, but it was too late. Aguilar had already fled the United States for Mexico.

“We made a call to child protective services. Nobody was answering the phone. It was 5 o’clock on a Friday,” said Tod Tamberg, the spokesman for the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

“Monday morning the call was made – a notification was made – and Aguilar Rivera, during the weekend, fled without telling anybody, to Mexico,” Tamberg said.

Sicard said if the police had been notified earlier, Aguilar would have been detained.

After Aguilar fled, more reports of his alleged abuse surfaced. The Los Angeles District Attorney later filed a warrant for his arrest, charging Aguilar with molesting 10 children.

Aguilar is still wanted in Los Angeles for 19 felony counts of lewd acts against a child.

He had been in the U.S. for only nine months.

“We’d love to know where he is, we really would,” Tamberg said. “I mean, the letters demanding his return don’t expire. We’d like him to come back and face justice.”

Aguilar is one of hundreds of former Catholic priests who have faced sex abuse allegations and who now live unmonitored in unsuspecting communities.

For decades, accused priests who were kicked out of the church for allegations of abuse blended back into society. No one keeps track of where they live.

“Unfortunately, they’ve never been convicted,” said Tamberg. “They’re private citizens and so they’re free to move about and live where they want to.”

Nearly 6,000 priests have been accused of molesting children in the United States since the 1950s, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Very few of the accused ever make it to a criminal trial, often because by the time the victims come forward the statute of limitations for the crime has passed. At that point, even if a priest admits to the abuse, he cannot go to jail.

CNN has learned that Aguilar allegedly continued his abuse of children after fleeing to Mexico.

In 1992, four years after leaving the U.S., Aguilar surfaced in Mexico City. Still a priest, he was assigned to the church, Nuestra Señora del Perpetuo Socorro, where he met Joaquin Mendez.

“I met him being an altar boy,” said Mendez, 30, who remembered him vividly. He said Aguilar became a close friend of his family.

“Honestly, his presence made me feel uncomfortable. His breath smelled really bad. It was a disgusting smell. Even now I feel the scars of those memories,” said Mendez.

Mendez was 13 years old when, he said, Aguilar called him into his bedroom at the church.

“He said, ‘Come on in. Let me show you some music tapes I made.’ So I go in and then he forced me to pull down my pants. He raped me,” Mendez said.

“I got away from him however I could,” Mendez continued. “He threatened me not to say anything to my family because if I did he was going to do the same thing to my brother.”

But Mendez found the courage to come forward. He said he told his parents and they went to the police.

Aguilar left Mexico City in 1995. Over the next 10 years he continued working as a priest in small towns in the Mexican state of Puebla.

Five formal complaints have been filed against Aguilar in Mexico since his return from Los Angeles. Aguilar is still wanted in Puebla for statutory rape, but authorities there say they’ve lost his trail.

CNN recently received a tip that Aguilar had been seen in Jonacatapec, a small farming town in the Mexican state of Morelos, about two hours south of Mexico City.

Emiliano, a Jonacatapec farmer, told CNN he had seen Aguilar twice. He said he recognized Aguilar from the news. Emiliano took CNN journalists to a bus stop outside of town, the last place he had seen Aguilar.

At the bus stop, a woman told CNN she rides the bus with Aguilar. “I saw him on the bus and he said I should take care of my baby,” she said. “That was all.” She had no idea about his past but agreed to show us where she believed Aguilar lived.

Once in the neighborhood, CNN was unable to find anyone else who knew Aguilar.

Sanjuana Martinez is a Mexican journalist who has written a book about Aguilar. She has also interviewed the priest himself.

“I said I can’t believe it that he’s talking with me,” Martinez said.

In a phone interview with Martinez, Aguilar repeatedly denied the allegations, including the charges made by Mendez.

“All of this has been a series of defamation, slanders,” Aguilar told her. “That is what all of this has been.”

Martinez said she believes it is unlikely Aguilar will ever be arrested in Mexico.

The spokesman for the Archdiocese of Mexico City, Hugo Valdemar, said the church has no further responsibility for Aguilar.

He said the church disputes the claim of rape by Mendez but acknowledged that Aguilar may be guilty of other abuse.

“I’m not saying he may not have done things, because we have the impression that he did,” Valdemar said. “The church has done what needed to be done. It suspended Nicolas Aguilar. He is no longer a priest.”

But church officials in Mexico did not defrock Aguilar until 2009, years after they knew about the alleged abuse. Valdemar said that it’s not the church’s job to hunt down suspects: ”This is a job for the police.”

Tony De Marco is a Los Angeles attorney that represents Joaquin Mendez and others who say they were abused by Aguilar. “There is no desire on the part of the church here to see that he be prosecuted and put in jail,” De Marco said.

De Marco said he would like to see the same policy changes in Mexico regarding victims of clergy sexual abuse that have been made in the U.S.

“You’ve seen things like zero-tolerance policies, you’ve seen compensation to victims, you’ve seen prosecutions of priests and most recently - finally - prosecution of those who facilitated and helped these men ... continue to molest kids,” said De Marco. “Change can happen. That’s my client’s belief and that’s my belief.”

But for now, Aguilar, and hundreds of other accused priests throughout the U.S. appear to remain beyond the reach of the law.

– CNN’s Luisa Calad, Valeria Longhi and special contributor Jesus Soria contributed to this report.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Catholic Church • Mexico • Sex abuse

soundoff (545 Responses)
  1. John Marshall

    So far I've seen thinly veiled jibes at Romney's Mormonism, everyone who is Catholic, Perry's Christianity, but nothing about Obama's insane pastor who hates whites and claims the USA deserved 9/11 and spread AIDS intentionally to kill Africans. Where's that stpry?

    October 30, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
    • Bob

      Because everything has to be about Obama, right? You're President is not a white man. Deal with it already.

      October 30, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
    • Just a person

      So what does anything about political candidates or their religions or their pastors, past or present, have to do with this story?

      October 30, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
    • Larry C. Wilson

      Wright has had his moment in the sun.

      October 30, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
    • Ram

      Your comments are a purposeful diversion to change the subject – implying that the grossly horrible acts can be justified by a sad version of "everyone is doing it."

      October 30, 2011 at 6:15 pm |
    • tallulah13

      And this has what to do with the catholic church protecting pedophiles? Apparently, you're more upset about your personal politics than you are about abused children. What a guy.

      October 30, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
  2. Rebecca

    The entire concept of priesthood as practiced by the Catholic Church is obscene and unnatural. Celibacy? Really?

    October 30, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
  3. Sean

    It's disgusting to think the Catholic church protected these guys, even perhaps reassigning them to other countries. It makes me feel embarrassed to be Catholic. I think if it can be proven that people knowingly put a suspected child offender in another country..... those who are responsible should be charged with a crime.

    October 30, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
    • Moe Smith

      Know Religion – Know Hypocrisy. No Religion – No Hypocrisy.

      October 30, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
    • PulTab

      You SHOULD be embarrassed.

      October 30, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
    • PFUI

      Moe Smith:

      Hie thee back to the drawing board. As much as I dislike religion, your little bumper sticker slogan is nonsense.

      Hypocrisy rages in many other areas besides religion. Case in point - the Miami cop who was arrested yesterday for speeding at 120mph because he was late for his second job.

      October 30, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
    • The Dude

      So why are you still Catholic? Most people with morals have already left.

      October 30, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
  4. MiND

    News from the Midwest – http://thomaschristopher.wordpress.com/2011/10/29/a-new-shepherd-for-the-sheep-monsignor-david-kagan-bishop-elect-of-bismarck-north-dakota/

    October 30, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
  5. John Marshall

    Maybe CNN should rename the Belief Blog the Anti-Christian blog. I've yet to see a blazingly negative article about Jews. But, oh yeah, they own the media.

    October 30, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • Moe Smith

      Maybe they should rename the comments section: Posts Started by Fuktards. Because obviously yours fits the description perfectly.

      October 30, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
    • Denise

      This blog is purportedly anti-Christian? That is your justification to excuse child molestation. You are as vile as the church officials that enabled predator priests.

      October 30, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
  6. Jacob M

    Shouldn't the Vatican and US-based Church officials be charged with aiding an accused criminal to evade law enforcement?

    October 30, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
  7. Rebecca

    Any position of authority invites abuse of one sort or another. Giving too much of your respect/awe to another human being is asking for a problem. The person may be your boss, minister, congressman, whatever...

    October 30, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • PulTab

      Don't try to play this off like it happens everywhere. The catholick church has the corner on this market.

      October 30, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
  8. Elizabeth

    Lord and heaven....and what has the Catholic Church being doing? Rewriting the Mass parts...Again.....I was raised in the Catholic Faith.....never abused, but fully support taking away their Tax exempt status. They are evil and mis guided in so many ways.....I am amazed by the faithful sheep in the pews who worship without question and allow one Male priest to dominate entire parishes. Yuck.....if you want a better Christian church at which to worship...pick any of the mainline protestant churches where member participation in decision making is the norm.

    October 30, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • kryg

      Pick up any protestant church? You'll be surprised how messy, without direction, and no moral impact many of these churches are. And they want 10% of your income while the pastors drive Benzes and Bentleys.

      October 30, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
  9. John Marshall

    Cllassic CNN religion-baiting at its finest, and of course the sheeple respond as expected. For a network largely run by Jews, one would think they would work a little harder not to constantly attack one faith. Priests are pedophiles at about the same rate as Boy Scout troop leaders are. Where's the Big Article against the Boy Scouts?

    October 30, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
    • Mark C

      Another piece of garbage heard from. Yeah, don't do any religion-baiting baiting YOU DIRTY JEWS.

      October 30, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
    • Carlin123

      This just in Boy Scout leader accused of raping Priest, or was it the other way around? Anyway news at 11.

      October 30, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • John Marshall

      Marc C, you're as dumb and hate-filled as they get on here. And that's saying something. I'm guessing you're a Jewish gay man?

      October 30, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
  10. Colleen

    It's not the church people. It is everywhere and it is done by GAY MEN.. See it for what it is.. Seriously!

    October 30, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
    • Mark C

      Yiou are an utterly useless imbecile and a bigoted piece of subhuman garbage. Girls are molested more often than boys are.

      October 30, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
    • PulTab

      Nearly 6,000 priests have been accused of molesting children in the United States since the 1950s. You need to get your blinders off Colleen.

      October 30, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • Sasha

      you are a moron, these priest are pedophiles, not GAY MEN!

      October 30, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
  11. Cindy Swanson

    The church should be forced to sell every single work of art in the vatican to compensate these people for the sins they let happen. The church should crumble and be humbled for what they let happen. Anything less shows they are not really serious about stopping this. Anything less shows that they have lost the way of God.

    October 30, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
    • Cindy Swanson

      They are way more concerned with preserving thier power than stopping this or helping victims. When you are molested, you are ripped apart. You feel dirty for the rest of your life. I no longer follow the church becuase they are about power and money, not spirituality. That been lost in the endless shuffling of pedophiles around to the unsupecting faithful.

      October 30, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • Rebecca

      Cindy is right... all power centers are for... their own power. They cover and excuse all forms of abuse.

      October 30, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
  12. me

    They call Halloween evil (which is just a day of harmless fun), and then defend their pedophile priests. Got hypocricy?

    October 30, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • PulTab

      "Like"

      October 30, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
  13. Joshua Ludd

    Then, of course there are the people like Bernard Law who were whisked away to a nice promotion at the Vatican before any charges could be contemplated against them. Then his replacement was given a promotion to the College of Cardinals for gladhanding paritioners and everyone else to make the whole scandal mostly go away.

    October 30, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  14. Carlin123

    Parents line up every Sunday morning to hand their children over to be molested. Isn't religion wonderful.

    October 30, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • PulTab

      "Like again"

      October 30, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
  15. Tr1Xen

    Tomorrow I'm going to dress as a priest when I'm handing out candy for Halloween. When I answer the door, this kids will take one look at me and run away SCREAMING!!!!!!!! Scariest costume ever!!

    October 30, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
  16. Bon

    b

    October 30, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  17. Bon

    where's Dexter when you need him?!

    October 30, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
  18. unowhoitsme

    6000 children...think about how many of them are now part of the ripple effect (child molesters themselves or will become one). If the priests want to be gay...so be it, but leave the innocent children alone! Another cult that won't let priests marry.

    Now the bishops have all their congregations thinking that everyone in the parish (the church members) are also child molesters, so the limelight is off of themselves; members going against members, because they "might" be a child rapist.

    The bishops also ask for the money from their people to pay the lawsuits.These PRIESTS need to pay for what they've done! Have a public hanging and be done with it.

    Another religious cult all in the name of Jesus.

    October 30, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • PulTab

      Gay has nothing to do with it you "F"ing moron.

      October 30, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
  19. RayJacksonMS

    Oh and by the way Fox News had to break down and admit yesterday that the Boy Scouts of America have covered up for 5,000 pedophiles too. Make sure to check into that.

    October 30, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  20. jim

    The catholic church should be de-certified as a religion and reclassified as a criminal enterprise!!!

    October 30, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • The Dude

      All of their assets could and should be seized under the RICO laws.

      October 30, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.