Despite priest’s dark past, he was given ample time to find new victims

Early in 2001, a young priest arrived in Southern California after being asked to leave his diocese near Rome.

The Rev. Fernando Lopez Lopez first went to the San Bernardino diocese, where a monsignor found it odd that he would show up unannounced, with no letter of explanation from his bishop.

The monsignor checked with church officials in Italy and was told Lopez Lopez had been asked to leave his post. When the monsignor confronted Lopez Lopez with this information, the priest admitted he had been asked to leave because of complaints from parishioners in Tivoli that he was involved in drug activity with young men in the church. There were also reports the priest was “homosexually involved with some of the young men of the youth group.” Lopez Lopez denied the allegations and also said the youths in question were over 18.

The monsignor in San Bernardino refused to assign the priest to duties in the diocese and suggested he go back to Italy. Instead, Rev. Lopez Lopez headed farther west and decided to try his luck with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

This time, even as L.A. church officials were trying to stem a spreading sexual abuse scandal, he wasn’t met with the same level of suspicion and didn’t admit to his past. And for unknown reasons, the same Italian bishop who told San Bernardino that Lopez Lopez had been asked to leave, this time signed a form for the L.A. Archdiocese indicating there were no problems in the priest’s past.

Rev. Lopez Lopez got the job and was assigned to St. Thomas the Apostle near Koreatown, where he was routinely in contact with minors. It was there, over the next three years, that he repeatedly molested three teenagers, including two minors. He was convicted in 2005 and sentenced to prison, then deported upon his release to his home country of Colombia.

All this bubbles back up now for two reasons. First, a lawsuit against the priest, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and the archdiocese is scheduled to be heard in October. And second, “Dan Rather Reports” aired an investigative piece Tuesday night claiming that Lopez Lopez had an even darker past than was previously known.

Rather reported that according to an Italian court official, Lopez Lopez pleaded guilty in 2000 to “repeated sexual violence on a minor.”

If true, it’s morally shocking that such a priest would have been allowed to stay in ministry, but not surprising. If anything has been more reprehensible than the decades of sexual abuse by priests, it has been the attempts by the Catholic church to shuffle pedophiles to new parishes and cover up as much of the mess as possible.

So Rev. Lopez Lopez ends up in California, where he seemed to have no trouble finding new victims.

Attorney J. Michael Hennigan, speaking for Mahony and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, argues that his clients did no wrong and said they tried to check on Lopez Lopez’s past. But even if you give them a pass for not being as suspicious as the monsignor in San Bernardino, there’s another little bombshell in this story.

The San Bernardino monsignor, Gerard Lopez, sent a letter to one of Mahony’s key deputies on Jan. 8, 2004, after learning that the same priest he turned away in 2001 had been working in Los Angeles. The monsignor warned L.A.’s vicar of clergy about what he had learned of the priest’s background.

But it wasn’t until nine weeks after the letter was sent to Los Angeles that Mahony’s staff sent a letter to the bishop in Tivoli, asking about Lopez Lopez.

“If your Excellency would be so disposed, may we inquire as to whether there are any issues … that would cast any shadow of doubt upon Father Lopez’s priestly integrity and ministry while serving in the Diocese of Tivoli?”

Would his Excellency be so disposed?

Why are church officials so sickeningly polite with each other about the business of children being abused?

How about picking up the phone, instead of sending a letter to Italy, and demanding an immediate explanation?

How about calling the pope?

And how about yanking Lopez Lopez out of the ministry immediately when a warning letter arrives from San Bernardino, until the entire matter is settled?

Hennigan tells me there was nothing to go on but unsubstantiated allegations involving people 18 or over. He said church officials questioned the principal at St. Thomas and also Lopez Lopez, who suggested the monsignor in San Bernardino had misunderstood him regarding what happened in Tivoli. Hennigan also said the church immediately removed Lopez Lopez from ministry when it received an allegation that the priest had molested a kid, and church officials called the police too. That was on July 13, 2004.

The half a year between the arrival of the letter from San Bernardino and the removal of Lopez Lopez is when “some of the worst of the abuse took place,” said Vince Finaldi, the attorney who represents the unnamed victim who has sued the church.

When Lopez Lopez was convicted in 2005 of four felony counts of lewd acts with a child and one felony count of sexual battery, among other counts, Cardinal Mahony wrote a letter to the Vatican suggesting it might be a good idea to dismiss him from the priesthood.

Mahony, never shy about polishing his own image, specified in the letter that Lopez Lopez certainly wouldn’t have been hired in Los Angeles if Tivoli had mentioned his past. Mahony told the Vatican the church’s investigation of Lopez Lopez “began promptly following the initial accusation” of abuse.

Yes, and it took only six months after the letter from San Bernardino to get him away from children.

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