Priest accused of sexually abusing 2 children; DiNardo accused of ignoring abuse

CONROE, Texas - A Catholic priest turned himself in to police Tuesday after accusations that he abused at least two children while assigned to a Conroe church, police said. 

According to Conroe police, Manuel La Rosa-Lopez was charged with four counts of indecency with a child in connection with an investigation that was launched last month.

“They did make outcrys to church officials at that time, and that information was not relayed, it’s our understanding at this time, that information was not relayed to law enforcement in any capacity,” Assistant Montgomery County District Attorney Tyler Dunman said Wednesday. 

Police said the allegations of abuse span from the late '90s to the early 2000s and accuse La Rosa-Lopez of abusing a girl and a boy while he was assigned to the Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

Investigators said La Rosa-Lopez surrendered to authorities at the Montgomery County Jail on Tuesday.

La Rosa-Lopez, 60, is currently a priest at St. John Fisher Catholic Church in Richmond.

KPRC

A parking space reserved for 'Father Manuel' at St. John Fisher Church in Richmond on Sept. 12, 2018.

In August 2018, a man came forward to claim that while he was at Sacred Heart from 1998-2000 and was under the age of 17, La Rosa-Lopez touched him and made intimate gestures.

The man said La Rosa-Lopez asked him to move items from offices to the priest's living quarters, where La Rosa-Lopez showed him photographs of partially nude men. The man said he tried to leave, but La Rosa-Lopez wouldn't let him leave and then touched the man's private parts.

The man, now 36, reported the abuse to his local parish, and after being flown in from out of state, he was interviewed by Daniel Cardinal DiNardo and archdiocese coordinator Sister O'Connell. The man said O'Connell told him his reports had been filed with the Conroe Police Department and Child Protective Services, however investigators could not locate those reports.

He wrote down notes from the meeting quickly after leaving and shared a copy of the notes with The Associated Press.

"Cardinal seemed dismissive of situation," the notes read. He also wrote down what he says is a quote from DiNardo: "You should have told us sooner."

"It was a dismissive tone," he recalled. "In the back of my head, I was thinking about his comment. I was so mad afterward."

Court records show the man was offered psychological counseling services by the archdiocese.

A few days after the man's interview, a woman, who investigators said had no links to the man, filed a report that she was sexually abused by La Rosa-Lopez while she was under the age of 17 and attending Sacred Heart.

The woman claims La Rosa-Lopez, who she said was her confessor, began "grooming behavior" which then lead to heavy petting and kissing.

In one alleged incident in April 2000, the woman said he took off his white collar and began kissing her. She claims he told her, "I have to wait until you're 16, because I'm trying to (expletive) you."

A couple of days later, court documents state the woman said La Rosa-Lopez fondled her and reached underneath her shirt.

The woman said she believed she was in a romantic relationship with La Rosa-Lopez and she wrote about him in her diary, referring to him as "Felipe."

She said her father read her diary and figured out that Felipe was La Rosa-Lopez and that he reported the discovery to the church. 

After several meetings with the head priest, Father Dave Kennedy, and then-Bishop Joseph Fiorenza, La Rosa-Lopez was transferred away from the church.

He was reassigned in 2001 to another church, St. Francis de Sales, according to The Associated Press.

The archdiocese said La Rosa-Lopez was permitted to return to parish ministry in 2004, when he joined St. John Fisher.

In 2010, the woman, now married, moved back to Texas after having lived abroad and saw that La Rosa-Lopez had received a promotion and was assigned his own church in Richmond.

Court documents state that the woman, after having contacted the archdiocese was interviewed by  O'Connell and DiNardo and was told that La Rosa-Lopez had been sent to a mental institution and placed on administrative leave after her reports. She was told he had no contact with children or teenagers.

The Associated Press reports that during her meeting, La Rosa-Lopez was brought in for about 10 minutes, she confronted him about the abuse and he apologized.

She says she later discovered that La Rosa-Lopez remained at St. John Fisher, in the presence of children.

Of DiNardo, the woman said, "I'm tired of all of his empty words."

"If he's going to go meet with the pope and pretend that all of this is OK and his diocese is clean, I can't stand it," she said. "I can't be quiet."

The Associated Press asked Tuesday to interview DiNardo and other top leaders at the archdiocese. It also submitted a list of questions about both victims' allegations.

A spokesman for the archdiocese declined the interview requests or to address specific allegations about what DiNardo told the victims.

La Rosa-Lopez was not present at Mass in St. John Fisher on Saturday night or Sunday. 

Parishioners were told on Sunday morning Mass that La Rosa-Lopez was "at a retreat."

Both the man and woman came forward because of recent media attention over the Catholic Church. The woman also stated she recently spoke out because of the church's "failure to adequately protect children from La Rosa-Lopez," court records state.

The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston released a statement:

"In 2001, a then-16 year old girl and her family notified this Archdiocese that Fr. Manuel La Rosa-Lopez had kissed and touched her inappropriately when he was assigned as Parochial Vicar at Sacred Heart in Conroe. We immediately referred this information to Children’s Protective Services for further investigation. Father La Rosa-Lopez denied touching the girl inappropriately, and the girl’s family decided not to pursue the matter, relocating out of the country that same year. After an internal review, including presentation of the above allegations to the newly founded Archdiocesan Review Board in 2003, Father La Rosa-Lopez was permitted to return to parish ministry in 2004. 

"Following her return to the U.S., the Archdiocese, in accordance with our commitment to provide pastoral outreach, provided the young woman with counseling services for a period of time, until she decided to discontinue her therapy. 

"For the last 17 years, no other allegations of inappropriate conduct involving minors were presented against Father La Rosa-Lopez until 2018. 

"During an interview in Houston on August 10, 2018, a 36 year old man formally presented an allegation to the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston stating that Fr. Manuel La Rosa-Lopez sexually abused him from 1998 through 2001, when he was a high school student and Father La Rosa-Lopez was still assigned at Sacred Heart in Conroe. The Archdiocese immediately reported this allegation to Children’s Protective Services as well. Father La Rosa-Lopez has denied these allegations of sexual abuse. 

"Yesterday, the district attorney of Montgomery County issued an arrest warrant for Father La Rosa-Lopez, which we understand is the result of the above reports. Father La Rosa-Lopez voluntarily turned himself into the Conroe Police Department last evening. 

"We take these matters very seriously, which is why we reported the information we received from both individuals to CPS – and removed Father La Rosa-Lopez from ministry. We are pledged to cooperate with the civil authorities in their investigation. 

"The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston recognizes it clearly has both a legal and a moral obligation to address any incidence of abuse — sexual or otherwise — to God’s children. Such behavior simply will not be tolerated. To anyone affected by any form of abuse by anyone who represents the Church, the Archdiocese deeply regrets such a fundamental violation of trust, and commits itself to eliminating such unacceptable actions." 

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that La Rosa-Lopez is no longer an employee of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, per police.

Copyright 2018 by KPRC Click2Houston. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.