In an emotional hearing that at times sounded more like a church revival, a Los Angeles judge Friday sentenced a former Catholic priest to six years and eight months in prison for molesting three boys.
Fernando Lopez “took advantage of his position of trust to commit the crimes,” said Superior Court Judge Ruth Ann Kwan as the former priest’s supporters tearfully clasped their hands in prayer in the packed courtroom. “The defendant robbed the victims of their innocence and scarred them for life.”
A jury found the onetime priest at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Koreatown guilty last month of sexually abusing three teenage boys in his parish from 2001 until last year. On Friday, two of them returned to court to speak out against him.
“This man has destroyed my life, my heart. Worst of all, he killed my faith,” said one who is now 23. “I will never be the same.”
Another victim, now 16, said he hoped his experiences would inspire other victims to speak out about their sexual abuse. “By my speaking up ... he won’t be able to do the same to someone else,” he said.
The case against Lopez, 41, has been touted by Catholic officials as an example of their invigorated approach to helping authorities investigate suspected molesters.
After the first victim reported Lopez to the police last year, Catholic officials conducted their own investigation and tracked down two other victims, those who spoke at the hearing, to bolster the prosecution’s case.
“Our first and foremost concern was for the victims,” said Carolina Guevara, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles County. “The church has a policy of cooperating fully in all investigations of sexual abuse.”
Victim advocates, however, said the archdiocese’s cooperation was the exception rather than the rule in clergy sex-abuse cases.
“This is very unusual, to see a priest convicted,” said Mary Grant, western regional director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, of the Lopez case. “Usually what happens is prosecutors aren’t able to prosecute because of church officials’ cover-ups ... and they continue to stonewall” in other cases.
Lopez, a native of Colombia, arrived in Los Angeles a few years ago from his home parish in Italy on a temporary assignment. Unlike other priests -- generally known for their buttoned-down ways and formal demeanor -- Lopez was a guitar-strumming padre with a goatee and long hair.
He was extremely popular at his mostly Spanish-speaking parish, and many of his congregants rallied to his defense. In the months before the trial, parishioners sold T-shirts and held drives to build a legal defense fund. They also packed the courtroom for hearings and for his trial to show support.
“These people love Father Fernando,” said his attorney, William G. Moore.
On Friday, courtroom benches were filled like pews on Easter Sunday, and two dozen congregants lined up in the aisle to speak on Lopez’s behalf.
They recalled how Lopez helped raise money for hungry children in Guatemala, ministered to the sick in hospitals and played soccer with children.
Jose Torres implored the judge to “have mercy on him.”
Josefina Letona closed her eyes, raised both arms toward heaven and wailed: “Holy Father, your son will be delivered.”
In a rambling speech in Spanish, Lopez insisted that he was innocent. He also decried “the words of babies” and the “Santa Barbara farce” -- perhaps referring to the Michael Jackson molestation trial -- as women and men in the audience sniffled in sympathy.
“These people weren’t with these victims when the defendant assaulted them,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Darci Johnson, after the hearing.
Later in the day, church lawyers appeared in the same courthouse where Lopez was sentenced to fight prosecutors’ attempt to obtain confidential archdiocesan files on Father Michael Wempe, one of two other local priests with molestation cases pending.
Wempe, originally charged with 42 counts of molesting 13 boys between 1977 and 1986, now faces charges of molesting one boy between 1990 and 1995 after a Supreme Court ruling effectively dismissed the earlier charges because the statute of limitations had expired.
Another retired priest, Stephen Hernandez, faces charges of molesting a 14-year-old boy in 2001 and 2002 while he counseled minors at Eastlake Juvenile Hall.