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Retired Bishop To Be Deposed In Sex Abuse Case

Jan 28, 2003 | Brownsville Herald Former Brownsville Bishop John J. Fitzpatrick will give a videotaped deposition next month to attorneys representing a 16-year-old mentally handicapped girl allegedly sexually abused by a former Rio Grande Valley priest.

Fitzpatrick, Bishop Raymundo Peña and Monsignor Juan Nicolau of the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan Del Valle National Shrine are all scheduled to give depositions planned for early to mid-February, said Fernando Mancias, the attorney representing the girl and her mother. In court records, the two women are identified as Jane Doe and Mrs. Jane Doe.

The lawsuit involving the teenager will go to trial March 10 in front of Judge Noe Gonzalez of the 370th state district court at Hidalgo County Court House.

Fitzpatrick served as bishop of the Brownsville Diocese from 1971 until his retirement in 1991. Questioning at the deposition will focus on policies or unwritten practices that the Brownsville Diocese used in the past to deal with priests accused of sexual abuse of minors or sexual misconduct, said Fernando Mancias, attorney for the 16-year-old victim.

"We’re trying to find out about their policy on priests that were accused of sexual abuse and what they do with them," Mancias said. "When a priest was accused of misconduct, they would just transfer him to another parish."

Fitzpatrick retired almost a decade before Basil Onyia, the Nigerian priest named in the lawsuit, came to the Brownsville diocese. Fitzpatrick did not return phone calls Monday. Vicar General Robert Maher and diocese attorney David Garza also did not return requests for comment.

In addition to the deposition, attorneys for the victim have asked the Brownsville Diocese for 15 years of records on sexual abuse allegations made against clergy and diocese employees, according to court records.

The personnel file and records of complaints or investigations for Carlos "Charlie" Garza, who served as a priest in six different Valley parishes, was specifically asked for in a motion to have the diocese provide information. Diocese lawyer David Garza filed paperwork with the court stating that the requests for information were too broad, not relevant to the Onyia case and violated the privacy of Garza and other clergy. Gonzalez has not yet ruled on whether or not the diocese will be required to provide the information.

In a July investigation conducted by The Brownsville Herald, Diocese Vicar General Robert Maher said Carlos Garza had been dismissed from active ministry in 2002 because of allegations of sexual misconduct

"I would not characterize the allegations other than allegations of sexual misconduct — that is, to the best of my knowledge," Maher told The Herald. "It’s important to be able to say that allegations have been made and that he does not have an active assignment and he will not be given an active assignment."

Carlos Garza is no longer with the diocese and is studying at a theology school in San Antonio. He did not return a reporter’s phone calls Monday. After being ordained in 1990, he served at Christ the King in Brownsville, Our Lady of St. John of the Fields in Mission, the Basilica, St. Theresa in San Benito and St. Cecilia in Los Fresnos and the Resurrection in Alamo.

Daniel Zamora, a deacon at St. John of the Fields, said he had no personal knowledge of sexual abuse allegations and that Garza was well liked when he served in the Mission parish. Zamora did say that Garza attended a treatment center while at St. John of the Fields.

"He just left and went to a treatment center and came back again," Zamora said.

He added, "I don’t know of anybody that was actually abused."

Brenda Riojas, spokeswoman for the Diocese, said she could not comment on the case or requests made by lawyers for the 16-year-old victim.

"The case is in litigation. We are not going to discuss any details regarding the case," she said.

In the lawsuit against Onyia and the diocese, lawyers for the 16-year-old alleged victim are gathering information about whether or not the diocese shuffled priests between different parishes, Mancias said.

Onyia served at St. Joseph the Worker in McAllen, Immaculate Heart of Mary in Harlingen and the Basilica from fall 1999 to the winter of 2001. He has been named in two lawsuits for sexual abuse of a minor and one criminal case with charges of sexual abuse of a minor after working within the Brownsville Diocese for just under one year and four months.

Letters found in court records show that complaints about Onyia had been brought to Peña’s attention before Onyia’s dismissal from the diocese.

According to court records, the 16-year-old girl, a Catholic, is mentally handicapped and emotionally disturbed. She was seeking counsel from Onyia, a Nigerian priest who was working at the Basilica. The girl had been sexually abused by her father at a young age and was seeking counsel on the matter, according to court records.

Onyia has been accused of sexually abusing her in several incidents from December 1999 to February 2001, according to court records. Onyia has been accused of fondling the girl’s breasts, penetrating her genitalia with his fingers and showing her a pornographic video, according to court records.

In another lawsuit, two different females have accused Onyia of sexually assaulting them while he was a priest at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Harlingen in the fall of 2000.

Seven warrants are out for Onyia’s arrest in Hidalgo County. He has not responded to any court requests that he appear in court. "We were trying to make contact with the (Diocese of Aba in Nigeria) to see if they had any information about his whereabouts," Riojas said.

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