Dozens of Catholic Priests Credibly Accused of Abuse Found Work Abroad, Some With the Church’s Blessing

The Rev. Jose Antonio Pinal, a young priest from Mexico, arrived at his first parish in rural Northern California in 1980, fresh out of seminary. The priest befriended the Torres family, helping the parents, also immigrants from Mexico, to fill out an application for food stamps. Pinal became an occasional dinner guest and took the children to theme parks and on road trips along the Pacific coast. He encouraged 15-year-old Ricardo Torres to become an altar boy.

But in the priest’s quarters at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in the small city of Gridley, Torres said, Pinal, then 30, gave him alcohol, showed him movies with sex and nudity, and groped and raped him. The teenager told another priest in 1989 and the family was assured by lawyers for the diocese that Pinal would not be allowed around children, Torres said.

Thirty years later, in the spring of 2019, the Diocese of Sacramento put Pinal’s name on its list of credibly accused priests. The list had five allegations of sexual abuse against Pinal dating to the late 1980s.

Pinal had “fled to Mexico,” according to the list, and the diocese had prohibited him from performing priestly work in public in the 20 counties that make up the diocese. But an investigation by ProPublica and the Houston Chronicle shows the Catholic Church allowed or aided dozens of priests — including Pinal — to serve abroad as priests after being credibly accused of abuse in the United States.

ProPublica and the Chronicle analyzed lists published by 52 U.S. dioceses — encompassing the top 30 in terms of the number of credibly accused living clergy and those located in states along the U.S.-Mexico border. Reporters found 51 clergy who after allegations of abuse in the U.S. were able to work as priests or religious brothers in a host of countries, from Ireland to Nigeria to the Philippines. At least 40 had worked in U.S. states along the southern border, including 11 in Texas. No country was a more common destination than Mexico, where at least 21 credibly accused clergy found refuge.

Using social media, a reporter easily located Pinal, who lives in Cuernavaca, about 55 miles south of Mexico City.

In an interview at his home and in a subsequent series of email exchanges, Pinal repeatedly denied sexually abusing Torres or that he “fled” California. But in some of the emails, he referred to what “happened” between him and Torres, and in an email sent Wednesday night, about a trip he took with Torres, Pinal said, “It was screwed up, but whatever happened was consensual.”

Just months after the allegations in California, Pinal resumed priestly work, ministering in indigenous villages in and around Tepoztlán, a small town near Mexico City known for archaeological sites, and he went on to serve for decades in parishes in the Diocese of Cuernavaca.

Now 68, he ministers from his home, where he has letters showing the church in Sacramento kept him on the payroll as it helped him find a new assignment. Pinal enjoyed a warm correspondence with the then-Sacramento bishop and officials in charge of Hispanic ministry, who in the months after the allegations advised him to work in Mexico for a “long period (5-6 years)” before returning to the U.S. Letters from the bishop were signed “con cariño,” or with affection.

“This was a grave failure of judgment and a betrayal of trust,” the current Sacramento bishop, Jaime Soto, said after correspondence between his predecessor and Pinal was released to Torres’ attorney through litigation. “The safety of children is our highest priority. In 1989, those in leadership failed to do so. I must own and atone for this.”

After being contacted by reporters, the Diocese of Sacramento acknowledged that the characterization that Pinal “fled” to Mexico is incorrect, and in recent days, the diocese revised the list to “more accurately reflect the circumstances of his 1989 departure.”

Since 2018, many Catholic dioceses and religious orders in the U.S., including Sacramento, have released lists of clergy deemed credibly accused of abusing children. Others updated and expanded lists they had already made public. For the church, the wave of disclosures has been a belated reckoning with the extent of the sexual abuse crisis that was exposed two decades ago.

But the 178 lists made public as of January and compiled into a searchable database by ProPublica revealed a web of incomplete and often inconsistent information.

Often the lists didn’t specify clergy’s current status and location. And while dioceses frequently claim to know nothing about a priest’s whereabouts, reporters with ProPublica and the Chronicle found them on church websites, in religious publications and on social media. Church leaders often failed to report allegations to police, to pursue permanent restrictions within the church, or to heed or offer warnings about priests facing allegations. In at least four cases, church leaders facilitated priests’ moving abroad.

The omissions, inconsistencies and other shortcomings undercut the church’s professed desire to repair its relationship with millions of disaffected Catholics, said Anthony M. DeMarco, a California lawyer who has handled hundreds of child sex abuse cases. “Every bit of hedging that they do to protect a pedophile just undermines completely any level of trust they’re trying to build,” he said.

Pinal keeps stacks of photo albums and papers documenting the nearly 10 years he spent at the Diocese of Sacramento, which covers the capital city and large swat...

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