Catholic Church

Catholic priest charged with sex abuse at church in US capital

  • Girl claims Father Urbano Vasquez put his hand down her shirt twice, identifying him as a ‘pastor of that church that abuse occurred at’, according to police
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 November, 2018, 3:38pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 November, 2018, 3:59pm

District of Columbia police arrested a priest from a Washington Catholic Church on Wednesday on charges that he sexually abused a teenager at the parish in 2015, officials said.

Urbano Vazquez, 46, of Washington was charged with second-degree child sexual abuse in connection with an incident at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in May of that year.

According to a District police report, a 13-year-old girl told police Vasquez put his hand down her shirt on two occasions on her bare skin. Vazquez was identified as a “pastor of that church that abuse occurred at”, the police report said.

Vasquez is identified on the church website as Father Urbano Vazquez, a parochial vicar.

Vasquez is a member of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, a fellowship of priests, and was not ordained by the Archdiocese of Washington. The archdiocese grants some Capuchins permission to work in its churches, including Sacred Heart, a large parish in Columbia Heights.

In a written statement on Wednesday night, the archdiocese said “additional allegations against Father Vazquez were reported” since the teenager came forward last month. Church officials released no other details about the allegations. The statement asked for anyone with information to contact police.

Chieko Noguchi, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said the Capuchins informed the archdiocese and police about the allegation involving Vasquez on October 26. The archdiocese cannot discipline Vasquez because he is not one of its priests, but it immediately revoked his permission to work at Washington churches. He has lost his position at Sacred Heart, Noguchi said.

Noguchi said that the archdiocese did not tell parishioners at Sacred Heart until Wednesday to avoid disrupting the police investigation.

During the investigation, she said, the archdiocese learned that the Reverend Moises Villalta, a pastor at Sacred Heart and another Capuchin priest, had known earlier about the allegation but failed to report it. That is a violation of archdiocese guidelines, and Villalta’s permission to work in the Washington archdiocese also was revoked, Noguchi said.

Archdiocese policy requires “criminal background checks, applications and education for all employees and volunteers who work with young people”, and Vazquez cleared the background check and other requirements, the statement said.

Vazquez is in police custody and could not be reached. It was unclear whether he had a lawyer.

He has been a parochial vicar at the church since 2014, church officials said.

The charges come soon after Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who had headed the archdiocese. Wuerl had been criticised for not acting strongly against abusive priests when he headed the diocese in Pittsburgh.

Wuerl’s immediate predecessor, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, was removed from ministry by the Vatican following allegations that he molested a teenage altar boy nearly 50 years ago, before he was in Washington. Subsequently, The Washington Post and other media reported that McCarrick had been accused of sexual misconduct with one other minor and with several young adult priests and seminarians – including two cases involving adults in which his previous dioceses in New Jersey had known about and settled out of court.

The allegations had been rumoured for years, leading Washington parishioners to question whether Wuerl knew about McCarrick’s behaviour.

Wuerl came under further condemnation later in the summer, when a Pennsylvania grand jury released a major investigation into decades of clergy sexual abuse. The report in part focused on Wuerl’s approach to handling abusive priests while he was bishop of Pittsburgh for 18 years.

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Some parishioners signed petitions calling for Wuerl to resign. Catholic schoolteachers made the same demand outside their back-to-school Mass.

Francis has not named a successor yet, and has kept Wuerl on as the acting administrator of the archdiocese.

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Immediately after his resignation was confirmed, Wuerl released a list of 31 clergy who had been accused of abuse in the archdiocese over the past 70 years, including three who were members of religious orders serving in archdiocese roles, such as Vasquez.

Vasquez was not on the list, which was released less than two weeks before his abuse was reported to the archdiocese.