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Priest accused of sexually abusing children headed to prison

HOUSTON – A Houston-area priest who was accused of sexually abusing children has been sentenced to 10 years in prison.

KPRC 2 Investigates has learned, Father Manuel La Rosa-Lopez pleaded guilty to two counts of indecency with a child on early Tuesday morning. It was part of a plea deal that will send him to prison for a decade and make him a registered sex offender for the rest of his life, according to prosecutors.

He was charged with five counts of indecency with a child involving sexual contact. He was headed to trial in January but surprised prosecutors by agreeing to the plea deal, they said.

Investigators said La Rosa-Lopez abused a girl and a boy while he was a priest at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Conroe from the late ’90s to early 2000s. A third person came forward last year and said he was also abused by La Rosa-Lopez when he served as an altar boy in the mid-'90s.

Prosecutors said the children reported the abuse to church officials at the time, but that information was never relayed to law enforcement.

A warrant was issued for La-Rosa Lopez in September 2018. He then turned himself into the Montgomery County Jail. He was initially charged with five counts of indecency involving the three victims but under the plea arrangement, three of those charges were dismissed, according to prosecutors. La-Rose Lopez will be sentenced to 10 years in prison for the other two charges, prosecutors said.

Lead prosecutor Nancy Heber, with Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office, said the agreement was made after consulting with victims.

“Their biggest concern is that the defendant was not around children ever again. They were also very concerned that he’d be registered as a sex offender. So they were very relieved to not have to come to court and face him and testify, although they were ready to do so,” Heber said.

According to La Rosa-Lopez’s attorney, Wendell Odom Jr., he agreed to plead guilty for what happened and accept responsibility.

“He wants to accept responsibility for what happened and wants to get on with his life. But also the civil suits have been settled at this point. We are getting closer to trial after a lot of consultation, he’s decided that this is what he wants to do,” Odom Jr. said.

The $20 million civil lawsuit filed by the victims accused the Archdiocese and the Vatican of not doing enough to protect the victims. They are expected to face La Rosa-Lopez in court on Dec. 16 for sentencing, where victims will be able to make impact statements.

“For us, it’s a victory for all victims," said Eduardo Lopez De Casas, a leader with SNAP Greater Houston, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping survivors of abuse.

SNAP is helping one survivor, identifying as John Doe, who said he was abused by La Rosa-Lopez when he was 15-years-old.

“I’m glad other children will not have to go through what I went through," Doe said.

He said, at the time, he helped teachers at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. He said La Rosa-Lopez committed the offense in a confession booth.

“What happened to me was a trauma that’s not only sexual in nature, but it was also a relational trauma," Doe said. "When that happened, it was like a parental figure had turned their back on me.”

John Doe is now a therapist and said he is focused on helping other survivors of abuse. The guilty plea is just the beginning of what he said needs to be a major change.

“There is a sense of justice," Doe said. “But it’s not over. I think we need a lot of advocacy for the structure to change within the church.”

SNAP and John Doe are pushing for more victim resources, more conversation and accountability.

“There are so many unanswered questions that the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston have to answer," Lopez De Casas said.