The Catholic Church allowed more than 50 U.S.-based clergy to move abroad after facing credible accusations of sexual abuse. Some continued to work with children.
ProPublica, and Nicole Hensley, Houston Chronicle March 6
The Rev. Jeffrey David Newell blesses children at Our Lady of the Incarnation in Tijuana, Mexico, in November 2019. Newell has continued to serve as a priest despite being accused of sexually abusing a teenager in the U.S.(Elizabeth Conley/Houston Chronicle)
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This story is co-published with the Houston Chronicle.
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 swaths of rural Northern California.
“It was a nice time,” Pinal recalled wistfully.
In one letter Pinal has saved, Bishop Francis Quinn told Pinal he “will be of whatever assistance is necessary in supporting your efforts to seek a new diocese.” The letter was written in 1990, the year after Pinal’s alleged abuse was reported to the church.
When the bishop for Cuernavaca offered Pinal a permanent appointment, Quinn (who died last year) was enthusiastic. “I am happy to hear that you have found such a fulfilling ministry,” the bishop wrote.
The prior year, Pinal had assailed his accuser in a letter to officials in charge of Hispanic ministry, Torres bore responsibility for what happened. “With this boy, what happened happened because he brought it about; and, if I am worried about his recovery, it’s not because I feel at fault for his trauma but because of the friendship I had with his family,” Pinal wrote.
Pinal said Torres was reluctant to talk to clergy about this because he was at fault. “If he refuses to talk with any priest, I don’t think it’s because he is rejecting me but because he knows that he is not innocent of the situation he wants to blame me for completely. His only advantage over me is that when this happened, he was a minor; so, legally, I am screwed. Because of this I had to leave the diocese and the United States, as you mentioned, for a long period of time (5-6 years).”
Ricardo Torres in Sacramento, California. Torres says he was abused by Pinal beginning at the age of 15. (Rachel Bujalski for ProPublica)
Last October, Torres filed suit against the diocese again, this time under California’s new Child Victims Act, which provides a three-year window for victims of child abuse to bring lawsuits that otherwise would have been outside the statute of limitations. The lawsuit alleges, among other counts, that the diocese’s negligence enabled Pinal to molest Torres and that the diocese failed to report the abuse to relevant authorities.
Torres said the church mollified his family by misleading them about the steps taken to curtail Pinal’s ability to minister. “This was supposed to be the most trustworthy person,” Torres said of Pinal. “He was supposed to be next to God.”
“The Past Is the Past”
For decades, the Catholic Church in the United States concealed abuse by clergy, transferring priests from parish to parish, sometimes cloaking reasons for moves in code, such as “family and health reasons.” The demand for Spanish-speaking clergy in the U.S. — driven by an increase of about 45 million Catholics since the 1950s, with the largest growth among Latino faithful — made it easier for priests to cross international lines, experts said, but harder to hold them accountable.
It is “all that much harder to track them when they’re in another country,” said Erin Gallagher, an investigator for the International Criminal Court in The Hague, who helped track down fugitive priests in the early 2000s when she was working in the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office. “They are pariahs here and they can go live someplace else anonymously.”
The ProPublica-Chronicle investigation found that the church’s ability to track abusive priests was even more limited internationally than within U.S. borders. Because the Vatican does not dictate what bishops must disclose about accused clergy, either within the church or to the public, bishops in many countries have released even less information than those in the U.S.
No diocese in Mexico, which is home to about 90 million Catholics, has published a list of credibly accused priests, though Mexican church officials reported in January that 271 priests have been investigated in the past decade in connection with sexual abuse allegations.
An advocacy group for abuse victims in Mexico compiled a list of accused priests in 2010.
In the U.S., some offenders were laicized — stripped of the power to be a priest. But others left their dioceses and resumed priestly work in Mexico, ProPublica and the Chronicle found. Some crisscrossed the border with ease after being accused of sexual abuse, securing new posts even after being sent for treatment by the church. Others settled into parishes south of the border decades ago, delivering sermons and blessing babies as the statute of limitations for prosecution in the U.S. expired.
Search the Database
Search lists of U.S. Catholic clergy who have been deemed credibly accused of sexual abuse or misconduct by the church, including some who moved abroad.
Over the last year and a half, U.S. dioceses and religious orders covering most of the Catholics in the country have released lists of what they regard as “credibly accused” abusers who have served in their ranks. You can search these lists in our interactive database.
The Rev. Jose Luis Urbina is still wanted on a three-decade-old warrant issued in California, Yuba County Deputy District Attorney Shiloh Sorbello said. Urbina, after pleading guilty to sexual abuse of a child in 1989, fled the country before he could be sentenced and then served as a priest in his hometown of Navojoa, Mexico, where The Dallas Morning News tracked him down in 2005. The paper said that in a phone interview, the priest admitted his guilt. Authorities in the U.S. sought to extradite Urbina that year, but the Mexican government declined to send him back, Sorbello said. The warrant was renewed in 2019 in case Urbina tried to return to the U.S., Sorbello said.
“Murder cases usually get top billing for extradition,” Sorbello said. “We don’t have any resources to have people go to Mexico to locate this man. And the Mexican authorities probably don’t have much incentive to do our work for us.”
Urbina was removed from the priesthood by Pope Benedict XVI in 2008, according to the Diocese of Sacremento’s list.
One of the most notorious cases of an accused priest moving across international borders was the Rev. Nicolas Aguilar Rivera. After abuse allegations first surfaced in 1987 in the southern Mexican city of Tehuácan, he was attacked by parishioners and then sent by church leaders to Los Angeles. Less than a year after arriving in California, he faced similar allegations, which eventually led to charges that he molested 10 boys. Church leaders confronted Aguilar before notifying police and he returned to Mexico, where he continued to abuse minors, according to lawsuits and criminal complaints filed in Mexico.
Years later, lawyers suing the Archdiocese of Los Angeles on behalf of abuse victims questioned Cardinal Norberto Rivera, then the Mexico City archbishop, about whether church leaders used code words — “family and health reasons” — to cloak the true reason for the transfers abroad. As the bishop of Tehuácan, Rivera had helped transfer Aguilar to the U.S. Aguilar needed “to attend to the problem I suspected he had, which was a health problem,” the cardinal explained in a deposition. “To be specific, homosexuality.”
The Archdiocese of Mexico City said Aguilar is believed to be deceased and that it is not aware of any complaints against him; the archdiocese did not respond to Rivera’s statements.
Some priests served for decades in Mexico and retired or died before being named on any list.
The Archdiocese of San Antonio included the Rev. Jose Luis Contreras on its list of credibly accused priests released in 2019 — more than 30 years after he was accused of inappropriately touching a 17-year-old male patient while serving as a chaplain at a San Antonio hospital, according to the archdiocese.
Contreras was sent for treatment in 1987 and barred from working in San Antonio-area churches again, according to the list, which stated that Contreras returned to Mexico to be with his sister in Guadalajara.
But Contreras was able to work as priest in both the U.S. and Mexico after the allegation.
Robert F. Vasa, the current bishop in Santa Rosa, California, said Contreras served in parishes there between 1995 and 2000, providing the Diocese of Santa Rosa with a letter of recommendation from the Diocese of Tepic, located in the western state of Nayarit, Mexico.
Vasa said he found no indication of the Texas abuse allegation in Contreras’ paperwork, copies of which he declined to share. But there was also a letter of support from a Santa Rosa priest that mentioned the five years Contreras spent in San Antonio — work history that was missing from Contreras’ resume.
“Should that have been spotted?” Vasa said of the five-year gap. “Now looking back, sure.”
Nothing in the file, Vasa said, reveals whether the prior bishop or his staff noticed the discrepancy.
“To spot that discrepancy would entail a prior suspicion, and unfortunately in those days they were not suspicious enough about many things,” he said. Even had the bishop or his staff noticed the inconsistency, Vasa said he isn’t sure it would have prevented Contreras from gaining a position in Santa Rosa.
“I can’t say what would raise red flags in 1994 and what wouldn’t,” he said. “We’re much more suspicious now.”
Contreras retired shortly after celebrating the 50th anniversary of his ordination in a ceremony at a parish in Colima, a small state in western Mexico, in 2017.
After reporters sent the diocese a copy of the list and specific questions about Contreras, officials responded with a statement declining comment, citing “the distrust and danger that unfortunately prevails throughout Mexico.” The Rev. Jesús Ramos Hueso, vicar general in Colima, said recently that no one in his diocese was aware of the allegations lodged against Contreras in San Antonio.
Contreras faces little risk of legal repercussions in the U.S. A reporter found no record that the allegation against him was reported to law enforcement. Regardless, prosecuting Contreras would be impossible now as the Texas statute of limitations on the allegation ran out decades ago, officials said.
Contreras, reached by phone, declined to hear the specific allegation against him and later blocked a reporter from contacting him. “I’ve already delivered myself to the Lord,” Contreras said. “For me, the past is a blessing from God and nothing else. For me, the past is the past.”
“I Wasn’t a Saint”
On a balmy Sunday morning in early November in Tijuana, Mexico, worshippers at Our Lady of the Incarnation greeted one another with hugs, handshakes and smiles. The church, on the west side of Tijuana’s Camino Verde neighborhood, was abuzz before Mass. Taxis lined the streets letting out customers: merchants laid out religious material as norteña music blared from speakers.
In the church courtyard, where dozens of children laughed and played, a reporter found Rev. Jeffrey David Newell, the church’s pastor.
According to the credibly accused list published in 2018 by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Newell is “inactive” — suggesting he no longer serves as a priest. But a Google search by reporters revealed Newell’s name on the Archdiocese of Tijuana’s website, listing him as the pastor at Our Lady of the Incarnation.
Newell holds a chalice for the blessing of the Eucharist during Mass at Our Lady of the Incarnation, the Catholic church in Tijuana where he is the pastor. (Elizabeth Conley/Houston Chronicle)
Newell, 58, was accused nearly 30 years ago of sexually abusing a teenager in Los Angeles, according to interviews and a lawsuit filed a decade ago. (The lawsuit has since been dismissed because it wasn’t filed within the statute of limitations.) The boy met Newell in 1984 when he was a lay youth minister at St. Catherine of Siena School.
The teenager said the abuse started in 1986, when he was 15, and went on for years. In 1991, he told officials in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles about the abuse and was promised Newell “would be removed from the priesthood and no longer able to sexually abuse children,” according to the lawsuit.
Newell, interviewed briefly at the church in Tijuana, said he confessed to church leaders decades ago and had multiple rounds of treatment and therapy.
“It happened,” he said. “I admitted it. I made a mistake.”
He disputed only the age of the victim at the time of the encounters: Newell said the victim was 17, not 15.
In response to questions from ProPublica and the Chronicle, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles said Newell admitted in 1991 to the “relationship” with a 17-year-old.
“After an adult made a report of sexual misconduct against Fr. Newell in May 1991, he was sent for evaluation and treatment from May to November 1991,” the Archdiocese of Los Angeles said. “He admitted to having an inappropriate relationship which began before he was ordained (when the alleged victim was 17 years old) and continued while he was priest (when the alleged victim was an adult).”
The archdiocese said Newell’s status is listed as “inactive” on its list because the status descriptions are intended to pertain only to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
Newell said he’s not the same person he was back then.
“I don’t know how you were when you were 23 years old,” Newell said. “I wasn’t a saint; I don’t know how many people are. That’s my job, working with sinners of all levels, and yet people expect something of us