HOUSTON (CN) – The Texas prosecutor who led a search of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston on Wednesday for a sex abuse case said Thursday it will take weeks to go through the records seized.
Joined by Texas Rangers and Conroe Police Department officers and federal law enforcement, J. Tyler Dunman, an assistant district attorney and chief of the special crimes bureau for Montgomery County, executed a search warrant of the diocese’s downtown Houston headquarters looking for records on the Rev. Manuel LaRosa-Lopez.
LaRosa-Lopez, 61, turned himself into Conroe police on Sept. 11 shortly after a man and a woman filed police reports alleging he had sexually abused them in 1999 and 2000 when they were minors.
The Montgomery County DA’s Office in Conroe, an hour north of Houston, charged him with four counts of indecency with a child, two for each alleged victim.The felony charge carries a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.
Released on bond the day after he turned himself in, LaRosa-Lopez’s first court appearance is set for Jan. 10, 2019.
Dunman told Courthouse News on Thursday that he could not say specifically what officers seized, only that it was electronic and paper records and it would take weeks to go through the evidence.
Asked if he took other priests’ personnel files, Dunman said, “I can’t say that. I’ll just tell you we did take other files related to other criminal activity that we discovered.”
Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo is the diocese’s archbishop. He is also president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The diocese said it is fully cooperating with the investigation and called media reports that police were looking for “secret archives” overblown.
“In fact, consistent with Cardinal DiNardo’s pledge of full cooperation, the information being sought was already being compiled. Also, ‘secret archives’ is merely a Church term pertaining to confidential documents kept in a secure manner for the protection of the privacy of individuals — not unlike medical records,” the diocese said in a statement.
But Montgomery County DA Brett Ligon told local media he would have preferred even more cooperation so that Wednesday’s raid was unnecessary.
“Even though the Catholic Church has cooperated locally, in my mind I would have just liked to have been given the keys on day one, and brought in on a voluntary basis,” he said.
DiNardo reportedly assigned LaRosa-Lopez to two suburban Houston churches, and appointed him vicar for the diocese’s Hispanic parishioners, after a 16-year-old girl told the diocese in 2001 that he had kissed her and inappropriately touched her.
But DiNardo, who removed LaRosa-Lopez from ministry in August, said he is now pushing the church to be more transparent about sexual abuse allegations.
To that end, the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops announced in October that the state’s 15 Catholic dioceses will release the names of all clergy who have been credibly accused of sexually abusing a minor, going back at least to 1950.
In an op-ed published Monday in the Houston Chronicle, DiNardo said he had spent the past two months at the Vatican in Rome.
“While in Rome, I met twice with the Holy Father [Pope Francis] to share with him the universal desire of my brother bishops in the United States to see urgent action taken to ensure that Church figures at any level who harm minors are held accountable,” he wrote, adding that the Texas report will be released by the end of January 2019.
DiNardo wrote that he went to Baltimore in November for a meeting of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, where the bishops hoped to announce that church procedures on dealing with sex abuse allegations against priests would be expanded to include bishops.
But Pope Francis told the bishops to hold off on unveiling the new guidelines before a February 2019 meeting of Presidents of the Bishops Conferences of the Catholic Church, which includes bishops from around the world, a mandate that “frustrated” DiNardo, he wrote in the op-ed.
Two other Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston priests have each been accused of sexually abusing minors, DiNardo wrote, but they were allowed to stay in ministry after investigations by a church review board, comprised of church members with backgrounds in law enforcement.
Dunman, the local prosecutor leading the investigation, said in a phone interview Thursday there’s potential more charges will be filed against LaRosa-Lopez.
“We have some other folks that have come forward as victims and we’re investigating those. I’m not giving specific numbers,” he said.
LaRosa-Lopez “denies any improper touching that would be considered a criminal act,” his attorney Wendell Odom told the New York Times in October.