(The New York Times) TEHUACAN, Mexico – For two decades, dozens of children have accused the Rev. Nicol?s Aguilar of molesting or brutally raping them. He faces an indictment charging sexual abuse in Los Angeles and at least five formal complaints in Mexico. Yet at 65 he remains at large, still working as a priest in villages here.
Father Aguilar’s long flight from the law, critics say, reflects the ease with which priests can avoid prosecution in the United States by hiding in Mexico, where judges and prosecutors are reluctant to challenge the enduring political strength of the Roman Catholic Church.
The case has focused attention on a problem that is not limited to Father Aguilar, but rather, critics say, points to a pattern of complicity by high officials in the church.
In September one of Father Aguilar’s accusers filed a lawsuit in southern California alleging that the cardinals of Mexico City and Los Angeles had conspired to help him escape prosecution by allowing him to slip across the border.
Both cardinals deny any wrongdoing. But American law enforcement officials and advocates for victims say that since 1995 at least three other priests accused of molesting children in the United States have fled to Mexico before the authorities could arrest them. In other cases, going back to the 1980’s, still more were transferred to Mexico after church officials received complaints about them.
“It is symptomatic of a problem that is large and will only get larger in the future,” said David Clohessy, director of the Survivor’s Network of Those Abused by Priests. “More and more Catholic bishops understand these predators are hot potatoes, and it is far safer to let them go into the third world.”
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, who leads the country’s largest Roman Catholic archdiocese, has been accused before of sheltering priests who have sex with children. A new documentary film, “Deliver Us From Evil,” contends that Cardinal Mahony knew that another priest under his supervision, the Rev. Oliver O’Grady, was abusing children in the 1980’s but moved him from parish to parish rather than turn him in. The cardinal denies the accusation.
The other fugitives hiding in Mexico, prosecutors in the United States say, are the Rev. Xavier Ochoa, who is wanted in Santa Rosa, Calif., on 10 counts of forcing children to have sex with him; the Rev. Javier Garc?a, who faces 11 counts of child sex abuse in Sacramento, Calif.; and the Rev. Jes?s Armando Dom?nguez, who faces 58 similar charges, including forcible sodomy, in Riverside County, Calif.
Mar?a de Jes?s Gonz?lez, the mother of a boy in Tehuac?n whom Father Aguilar is accused of molesting in 1997, said she had given up hope that the Mexican authorities would ever bring the priest to justice.
“Here in this world there is no justice, so I have to believe in divine justice,” she said, angry tears welling in her eyes. “There is a religious mafia. Among the priests, they protect each other, they help each other.”
Over the years, Father Aguilar, who began his priesthood in Mexico in 1970, has shuffled from parish to parish under the oversight of some of Mexico’s most prominent churchmen, even as he has been followed by many allegations of sexual predation, critics say.
His overseers included Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico City, who heads the church in Mexico and was considered a candidate for pope last year, advocates for victims of sexual abuse say.
Cardinal Rivera Carrera declined to be interviewed for this article. But he told the newspaper La Prensa on Sept. 27 that he had heard “accusations of homosexuality, but not of pedophilia” about the priest before shipping him off to Los Angeles with a letter of recommendation. The letter said the priest wanted a change of scene “for family and health reasons.”
In September, after protests over the case in front of the Mexico City cathedral that drew national attention, Cardinal Rivera Carrera read a statement urging Father Aguilar to turn himself in, “for the good of his own conscience and to avoid more damage to the church.”
In the United States, Father Aguilar served under Cardinal Mahony in Los Angeles. Through a spokesman, Cardinal Mahony, who is named in the civil case, said his office reported Father Aguilar’s abuse of two altar boys to the authorities in January 1988.
The spokesman, Tod Tamberg, said the principal of the church school left a message on an answering machine at the office of child protective services on the afternoon of Jan. 8 of that year; Father Aguilar left the country the next day.
The Los Angeles police say the vicar for clergy, Msgr. Thomas Curry, tipped off the priest on the morning of Jan. 9 that he would be investigated, two days before their detectives were informed. Father Aguilar slipped across the border that night.
Mr. Tamberg confirmed that Monsignor Curry had confronted Father Aguilar with the accusations against him that morning and stripped him of ministry duty. The priest told Monsignor Curry he was going to stay with relatives in Los Angeles during the investigation, but he fled the country instead, Mr. Tamberg said.
“Our school officials acted appropriately,” he said, “and so did church officials, to remove this guy from the ministry.” In the next nine years the parents of at least five boys in Mexico have formally accused Father Aguilar of sexual abuse or rape as he continued to work in parishes.
“The frustration is unbelievable,” said Detective Federico Sicard, the Los Angeles investigator who has been seeking Father Aguilar for 18 years. He added: “When things like this happen we fail them. The justice system failed these kids.”
Father Aguilar’s troubled private life first came to light in 1987 in Cuacnopalan, a dusty farming town where he headed a parish for more than a decade.
Many older parishioners still defended Father Aguilar as the best priest they ever had. But there were also hushed reports among some parents that the priest had molested and fondled boys in the congregation, and at least one youngster, who died of complications from AIDS in 1996, told friends that he had complained to the diocese, town officials and residents said.
“There were a lot of comments about his relationships with the boys, that he had problems with the youngsters,” Melqu?ades Alc?ntara, 61, recalled. Cardinal Rivera Carrera, who was then the bishop of the Tehuac?n Diocese, did not mount an inquiry. He told La Prensa that an attack on Father Aguilar – along with persistent rumors about his homosexuality, not pedophilia – had persuaded him to ship the priest off to Los Angeles in early 1988.
After Father Aguilar was in Los Angeles nine months, two altar boys complained that on several occasions he had lured them into his residence and fondled them.
Three months after the case was reported to the authorities, a grand jury indicted Father Aguilar on 19 counts of lewd acts upon a child, involving 10 children. But by then he had fled back to Mexico. The Los Angeles authorities immediately sought to have him indicted in M?xico and extradited to California.
It took seven years for the Mexican attorney general’s office to issue an arrest warrant, Detective Sicard said. Three months after it did, the statute of limitations on the sex abuse charges ran out.
The priest was never arrested, but allegations of new abuses hounded him. In the early 1990’s he served as the associate pastor at two churches in Mexico City. Joaqu?n Aguilar Mendez, who brought the suit in Los Angeles in September, was an altar boy at both. Mr. Aguilar M?ndez says Father Aguilar brutally raped him in October 1994 inside a rectory after he had misbehaved at Mass. He was 13.
Lawyers for Mr. Aguilar M?ndez say he and his parents reported the rape to the police three weeks later. The police did three rape tests and told them that they had lost the results all three times, the lawsuit claims.
A prosecutor, the lawyers allege, offered the parents a bribe to drop the charges. The parents refused, but the complaint never resulted in a trial, Mr. Aguilar M?ndez said.
In late 1995 or early 1996, Father Aguilar returned to Tehuac?n, where he was assigned to the small San Vicente Ferrer church, clergymen there said. Within a year his parishioners were once again leveling charges of child molestation.
Four mothers filed charges of sexual abuse with the local prosecutor, though other mothers said the number of victims was far higher. Cecilia Flores said her son was only 10 when the priest tried to put his hand down the boy’s shorts. “How many injustices has this priest committed?” Mrs. Flores asked.
That investigation dragged on for six years. The state judge handling the charges, Carlos Guillermo Ram?rez, has never issued an arrest warrant in three of the cases and ruled out rape charges in all of them.
Even as the investigation was proceeding, Archbishop Rosendo Huesca Pacheco of Puebla, just 71 miles away, gave Father Aguilar permission in 2001 to serve as an assistant priest in another village. “We didn’t know there were charges against him,” said an official in the Puebla archdiocese, the Rev. Amador Tapia.
In 2002 a state tribunal in Puebla finally ordered that the priest be arrested for the “corruption of minors.” Father Aguilar appealed to a federal judge, who canceled the arrest warrant because the statute of limitations had expired.
In 2003 Judge Ram?rez found Father Aguilar guilty of a lesser charge of touching the genitals of one boy, but acquitted him of the top charge of corruption of minors. He sentenced the priest to one year in prison and a $765 fine, according to court papers.
Father Aguilar was allowed to pay a slightly larger fine to avoid prison and disappeared once again.
In recent months he has been seen saying Mass in tiny towns in the states of Puebla and Morelos. The Tehuac?n diocese has never defrocked him.
James C. McKinley, Jr.