A visiting priest from Mexico, who gained the confidence of Spanish-speaking families in two Los Angeles Catholic parishes and was welcomed into their homes, is under investigation by police for allegedly sexually molesting at least 18 altar boys before fleeing the country.
Investigators said they expect the number of alleged victims to rise. So far, they have been able to reach only about half of the two parishes’ 60 or so altar boys. The children, ranging in age from 9 to 13, make up the primary group of possible victims, police said.
The priest under investigation was identified as Father Nicolas Aguilar Rivera, 46, by Detective Gary Lyon of the Los Angeles Police Juvenile Division.
The alleged molestations--ranging from fondling to masturbation--began last April, shortly after Aguilar arrived at Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in the El Sereno area of East Los Angeles and ended about a month ago, with his sudden departure from St. Agatha’s Parish in South-Central Los Angeles, police said.
Police said they have received less than full cooperation from the church in the investigation, and parents who opened their homes to the priest and encouraged their children to spend time with him have raised questions about the church’s handling of the case.
Father Joseph Battaglia, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said the archdiocese’s immediate response upon learning about the charges against Aguilar was to remove him from all church duties. Police were not notified until two days later.
“He was asked to stay in the country to face the accusations against him, but he chose to leave,” Battaglia said. He added that the archdiocese has contacted Aguilar’s church superiors in Mexico “to try to convince him to come back.”
The archdiocese’s decision to confront Aguilar with the allegations two days before reporting the matter to police may have inadvertently allowed the priest to evade arrest, Detective Lyon said.
He said that while the church “acted properly in relieving (Aguilar) of any duty involving children . . , it’s unfortunate that we couldn’t have been there when he was notified (of the allegations) by the archdiocese.”
Called by Principal
The police first learned of the alleged molestations when they were called by the principal of the Catholic school affiliated with Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. Because multiple victims were alleged, the officers were prepared to take Aguilar into custody, Lyon said.
Some parents resented having learned about the alleged molestation from police rather than church authorities, and that the priest’s sudden departure from their parish about a month ago was explained to one of the congregations as a “family emergency.”
“The church shouldn’t be telling lies,” said the father of two of the alleged molestation victims. “They should tell us the truth so that we can be prepared for something like this. How can we be alert if they don’t tell us the truth about things?”
Battaglia pointed out that the allegations against Aguilar have not been proved.
Walking a Fine Line
“You walk a fine line between recognition of an allegation and a presumption of guilt,” he said. In cases like this, “reputations and psychological health are of paramount importance for both the accused and the ones allegedly injured.” Psychological counseling has been offered to the families by the archdiocese, he said.
If the Los Angeles County district attorney files formal charges against the priest, who is believed to have returned to Mexico, the evidence would probably be turned over to Mexican authorities for prosecution in that country, Lyon said.
In California, charges of fondling a minor may result in either misdemeanor or felony charges, depending on the extent and circumstances of the act. Masturbation is a clear-cut felony, he said. Extenuating circumstances, such as multiple victims of a person entrusted with the care and control of children, usually leads to felony charges, as well, he said.
Police efforts to contact all potential victims of the alleged molestation have been hampered by the church’s refusal to furnish lists of altar boys at the two parishes, Lyon said.
Some Parents Give List
“We’ve had to ferret out the names on our own,” he added. At Our Lady of Guadalupe parish, where Aguilar spent about two months, parents provided police with a list that has allowed investigators to contact most of the boys there, Lyon said. But no such list has been available from St. Agatha’s parish, where the priest worked for eight months.
Investigators have been slowly contacting some boys through public schools in the St. Agatha’s parish area, Lyon said.
The archdiocese’s Battaglia said he did not know why the lists were not made available to police. Calls by The Times to other archdiocesan and parish officials, including Archbishop Roger M. Mahony, were not returned.
Aguilar came to Los Angeles with the permission of his Mexican bishop, and his credentials showed him to be “a priest in good standing,” Battaglia said.
“I guarantee you that if any problem had even been hinted at, he would not have been accepted here,” he said.
Tells of a ‘Problem’
Aguilar, however, told a parishioner at Our Lady of Guadalupe that he had had a “problem” with a family in Mexico and that they had tried to kill him. Aguilar said he had been beaten severely and spent several months in a hospital before coming to Los Angeles.
The parishioner, like others, occasionally allowed the priest to stay at his home. He said that one of his three boys told him in late December that Aguilar had fondled him when the priest stayed overnight in the boys’ bedroom.
“I’ve worked very hard and have dedicated my life to my children and to helping them gain a good education,” he said. “And for what? For some supposedly educated person to come into my home and disrupt my family.”
After he learned of the alleged molestation, the father spoke to close friends with whom the priest had also stayed overnight. When questioned, the second couple’s children told their parents that the priest had fondled them during a three-day stay at their home.
“We opened the doors to our home because my children liked him and because one of our sons has a vocation for the priesthood and we wanted a priest to counsel him,” the second father said.
At Family Gatherings
As he did with other families, Aguilar attended family gatherings and took the children on outings. The priest also asked the families to allow their children to teach him English. Several said they gladly gave their permission.
It was during these private English lessons, several of the children alleged, that they were molested. Some of the lessons were held in empty classrooms and in the church sacristy, Lyon said.
The two couples and a third, whose children also said they were molested, pondered what action to take for about a week before approaching their pastor and the school principal, who eventually reported the matter to police.
Although parents said they hope that the priest is located and either forced into psychiatric treatment or punished, most of the parents said that the painful experience has not shaken their faith in their church.
More Severe Setback
For the one family, however, the experience dealt a more severe setback.
“My kids have always helped out at the church and we’ve encouraged them,” the father said. “I didn’t want them hanging out on the street and getting involved with gangs.”
“But I don’t know who to trust anymore. . . . My children say they will never help out at church again.”