A Santa Ana priest pleaded guilty Friday to molesting a 15-year-old girl while they rode in a car with her parents, becoming the first Orange County cleric to be removed from the priesthood after admitting to criminal sexual misconduct since the national scandal erupted two years ago.
Father Gerardo Jarencio Tanilong, 72, assistant to the pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe-Delhi church, could be sentenced to up to three years and eight months in jail for the two felony counts of committing a lewd act upon a child.
The girl accused Tanilong of groping her breast and trying to reach into her underwear while they were in the back seat of her parents’ car July 12, as they drove between churches to celebrate Saturday evening Mass. She told her parents when the family got home, and Anaheim police arrested Tanilong when he came to the station for an interview two days later.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Sheila Hanson, who prosecuted the case, could not be reached for comment Friday.
Tanilong’s attorney, Norberto Reyes III, declined to comment Friday. He previously had praised what he said was Tanilong’s unblemished record and said parishioners sent more than 100 letters vouching for the priest’s character.
Officials of the Diocese of Orange said Friday that Tanilong had been immediately removed from the priesthood.
“I deeply regret the abuse of a minor and pray for the recovery of the victim and family,” Bishop Tod D. Brown said in a written statement. “The abuse of a minor is particularly heinous, and I am fully enforcing our policies.”
The church had placed Tanilong on paid administrative leave after the allegations were made
Tanilong had been at the Santa Ana church since 1999 and had also served at Our Lady of Lourdes in Santa Ana, St. Joachim in Costa Mesa, St. Boniface in Anaheim and St. Callistus in Garden Grove during his 17 years with the diocese.
He joined the priesthood 40 years ago in the Philippines.
To show their support for Tanilong, known as “Padre Gerardito,” about 40 parishioners attended his preliminary hearing in November.
The priest has been free on $50,000 bail since soon after his arrest.
Judge Richard Stanford will sentence Tanilong on April 2 at the North Justice Center in Fullerton. He is the fourth Orange County priest to be accused of sexual misconduct in the last year but is the only one who has faced criminal charges, said diocese spokesman Father Joe Fenton.
Tanilong’s guilty plea and release from the priesthood is Orange County’s first since U.S. dioceses adopted in 2002 a policy requiring dismissal of clerics facing any credible allegation of physically abusing minors.
A 54-investigator unit composed primarily of former FBI agents is set to release an audit in February reporting the number of sexual abuse cases nationwide since 1950.
The U.S. Supreme Court last year threw out criminal cases against more than a dozen current and former Southern California clerics because the three-year statute of limitations had expired, forcing the accusers to turn to the civil courts for recourse.
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles faces an estimated 500 civil lawsuits stemming from allegations of sexual abuse. At least 50 claims have been lodged against the Diocese of Orange.
Victims and their advocates said Tanilong’s confession heartened them.
“We’re very encouraged that at least at some level people who have committed these heinous crimes are taking responsibility for them,” said Lee Bashforth, director of the Orange County chapter of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests. “Someone has finally chosen the truth over more cover-up.”