Is current law enough to protect children?

By Joel Eisenbaum - Investigative Reporter, Cathy Tatom - Investigative Producer

HOUSTON - Across the nation, and the globe, reports of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests are grabbing attention.

In late August, Father Manuel La Rosa-Lopez, of St. John Fisher Catholic Church in Richmond, surrendered to Conroe police, accused of four counts of indecency with a child while he was with Sacred Heart Church in Conroe.

The arrest follows two individuals coming forward to Conroe Police in August. Police said the victims alleged the abuse happened in the late '90s and early 2000s.

Channel 2 investigator Joel Eisenbaum asked Special Crimes Bureau Chief with the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office, Tyler Dunman, if there may be more potential victims in this case.

Dunman said, "I can tell you that we've probably had 50 to 100 people reach out to us with information of varying degrees. It's a lot of work and that's why it's going to take some time to get through that to understand the full gravity of what that information is."

Channel 2 Investigates looked at the law to see who is required to report suspicions of child sexual abuse.

Here in Texas, if you know of or suspect child abuse, by law you must report it.

You can do so anonymously. If you don't report your knowledge or suspicion you could face criminal charges. The law gives a choice of where to report, either to law enforcement, the State Department of Family and Protective Services or the Texas Child Protective Services, which is a part of DFPS, state agencies with no police powers.

CPS or DFPS can forward the suspicions reported to them to law enforcement if there is enough information. However, just reporting to CPS or DFPS doesn't guarantee the information will get to law enforcement to be investigated.

Shortly after the arrest of La Rosa-Lopez the Catholic archdiocese released this 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 Aug. 10, 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."

Dunman told Channel 2 Investigates, while the church said it reported the cases to CPS, "They haven't provided any documentation to us that does confirm that, other than what we've been told."

We asked South Texas College of Law Professor Kenneth Williams if the Church did report the allegations to CPS, was that enough to fulfill its obligation under the law?

Williams said, "If the statute states that they can fulfill their duty either by contacting law enforcement or CPS and they contact CPS they have technically met their legal duty. A better choice for safety of the child would be to contact law enforcement because they can obviously act quicker and they have police power which CPS does not. But once they contact CPS, then it's incumbent on CPS then to refer it to the police and then the police would contact them, and then want to interview them, and contact them, and get information and evidence about what happened."

We also asked some state lawmakers to ask if the law allowing reporting parties to choose where to report provides child victims of sex abuse enough protection.

State Sen. Joan Huffman (R Dist.17 Houston), the vice chair of the State Senate Criminal Justice Committee, responded.

"I would support a review of Chapter 261 to ensure that all complaints of abuse and neglect, no matter their origin, can be quickly and thoroughly investigated," he said.

We also asked numerous times for a sit-down interview with the Archdiocese of Galveston Houston regarding this story. They declined an on-camera interview and sent this statement instead.

"The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston takes these matters seriously, and is devoting its energies to cooperating with the civil authorities in their ongoing investigation. We are very early in a complicated process and are fully committed to addressing these issues. As we learn more and have an opportunity to assess what must and will be done going forward, we will be in a position to make public comments."

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