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Church, Diocese Sued By Man Claiming Sexual Abuse By Priest

Jul 2, 2003 | Harlingen Valley Morning Star

The Brownsville Diocese and McAllen’s Sacred Heart Catholic Church are being sued by a man who claims a priest molested him as a youth, according to a lawsuit filed Monday at the Hidalgo County Courthouse.

The plaintiff is identified in the lawsuit, but his name is not being published because of a Monitor policy that withholds the names of alleged sexual assault victims.

The priest, who formerly served at Sacred Heart, is not specifically named in the lawsuit. He is referred to in the suit only as a "molester priest." The time period of the alleged offenses also is not disclosed in the suit.

"I am a member of Sacred Heart parish and it does not involve Father (James) Pfeifer," said Manuel Trigo Jr., the attorney representing the victim. "This is someone who was there sometime before that."

Pfeifer is the current pastor at Sacred Heart.

Trigo refused to answer questions as to when the alleged molestation occurred and why the priest’s name was not disclosed.

Diocesan attorney David Garza did not return telephone calls Wednesday. The Most Rev. Raymondo J. Peña, bishop of the Brownsville Diocese, is on vacation until the second week of August and could not return telephone calls.

In the lawsuit filed this week, the vague details describe a priest repeatedly assaulting a minor over a period of time.

"The molestation was not a one-time event, rather, it proceeded over a long period of time," the lawsuit alleged. "Plaintiff (the victim) was just a child at the time, had his trust in the Church, and was not psychologically equipped to resist the sexual demands of the priest."

Diocese officials are being sued because they hired the priest and did not investigate his background or properly supervise him, the lawsuit contended.

The lawsuit is filed in County Court No. 5. The county court system handles civil cases for possible settlements of up to $750,000. Cases that exceed that amount are placed in state district courts.

Several dioceses across the United States have been financially drained from settlements in sexual abuse cases. The Diocese of Manchester, N.H. paid $15.5 million earlier this year to settle 176 sexual abuse claims while the Boston Archdiocese missed a June 27 deadline to settle 400 out of 500 sexual abuse cases. Dioceses, including the Brownsville Diocese, have been accused by lay groups of making secret settlements in molestation cases.

The Brownsville Diocese has not publicly disclosed any settlements in sexual abuse cases, despite requests made this spring by a small local chapter of Call to Action, a national organization seeking transparency in the church’s finances and handling of sexual abuse case.

Peña said recently that releasing information about priests accused of abuse would be a tedious process, requiring him to look through 35 years worth of personnel files.

Two lawsuits are pending in Noe Gonzalez’s 370th state District Court regarding abuse allegedly committed against a teenage girl between January 2000 and January 2001 by Fr. Basil Onyia, a priest from Nigeria who was serving in the diocese at the time. Onyia has since left the country and is wanted by local law enforcement agencies for questioning in connection with the sexual abuse allegations.

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