DA launches inquiry into alleged child sex abuse by priests

The Cameron County District Attorney’s Office announced its plans Friday to launch an “inquiry” into the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville’s list of 13 priests the church deemed “credibly accused” of sexually assaulting children in Hidalgo and Cameron counties.

“Our office will be conducting an inquiry into this matter to determine what criminal justice actions may or need to be taken in response to this disclosure,” Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz said in a statement, adding his office reviewed the diocese’s list of clergy members who “have been accused of sexual abuse of children while they served in the Rio Grande Valley.”

The Brownsville diocese, encompassing the Rio Grande Valley, released its list of clergy members Thursday, an action taken simultaneously with all other Catholic dioceses in Texas.

All of the seven living priests on the list were assigned to churches in Hidalgo and Cameron Counties. The six other priests on the list have died.

An investigation would mean the district attorney’s office can subpoena testimony or records in the Catholic Church’s possession in preparation for a potential criminal case against the accused priests, according to Patti Koo of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priest, or SNAP, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting victims.

“This is exactly what we want,” Koo said.

The local diocese retains personnel files, which include information about past and present clergy members’ parish assignments, letters, school transcripts and other information stored in Brownsville, according to Bishop Daniel Flores of the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville.

The files were reviewed by laypersons within the church, and SNAP believes an “independent” investigation outside of the church should be conducted.

“This work that was done is an act internal to the church, and it gives me more confidence that I know what’s in the file. I mean, this is thousands of pages, (which) were reviewed exhaustively,” Flores said, later adding: “I’m certainly focused on informing the church that there is no active cleric, active priest, deacon or bishop in the Diocese of Brownsville, who is credibly accused.”

Texas Attorney Ken Paxton said his office is prepared to provide assistance to county attorneys and district attorneys in Texas, who are tasked with overseeing the prosecution of child sexual abuse cases within their jurisdictions.

It’s unclear, based on Hidalgo and Cameron County court records and the list released by the Brownsville diocese, whether or not the seven living priests   Humberto Acosta, 69; Lee DaCosta, 81; Armando Escobedo, 82; Terrence Fowler, 57; Basil Onyia, 52, Ivan M. Rovira, 73; and Marti G. Zuber, 68  — were charged with sexual abuse of children. The sole deacon on the list, Rolando Mitchell Chavez, 45, remains behind bars at a state prison in Huntsville for molesting an alter boy while assigned to San Cristobal Magallanes & Companions Church in Mission.

“I’m certainly open to talking to law enforcement … now that we have this information, (about) what they think is the appropriate (action) moving forward,” Bishop Flores said.

Contacts to provide information about sexual abuse against children:

Cameron County District Attorney’s Office: (956) 544-0849

Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office: (956) 292-7600

Resources for those abused by clergy members:

Support Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP): www.snapnetwork.org

Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN): www.rainn.org

Catholic Diocese of Brownsville: (956) 784-5066