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Long Beach priest pleads not guilty to sexual assault charges

A Roman Catholic priest who worked at a Long Beach church pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges he sexually groped a 14-year-old girl and two women in incidents that started two years ago.

Father Luis Jose Cuevas, 67, a pastor of St. Athanasius Church on Linden Avenue, faces eight misdemeanor charges of sexual assault and one felony count involving lewd acts with a child, according to a complaint filed by the L.A. County district attorney’s office. Superior Court Judge James Otto set his bail at $260,000.

The two adult women, both 20, initially reported the alleged incidents to the archdiocese and then filed a police report, said Sgt. Aaron Eaton, a spokesman for the Long Beach Police Department. Later, the teenager alleged repeated incidents during which Cuevas inappropriately touched “an intimate part” of her body for his own sexual arousal, the complaint contends. Cuevas was arrested Monday in San Jacinto.

All of the incidents allegedly occurred at the church, where Cuevas served and lived for seven years until his recent removal from duties. The felony and six of the lesser charges involve the teenager, who was 14 during the first alleged incident in July 2010, according to the complaint. The two women said he fondled them in February 2012.

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George Bird Jr., the Torrance-based attorney who is representing Cuevas, said the allegations sprang from times the priest hugged parishioners and touched the clothing over their breasts. He said that such touching is illegal if it is done with “lewd intent” but that “there was no such intent on the part of our 67-year-old client who has dedicated his adult life to serving the community.” Cuevas has no record of past arrests and “is committed to defending himself against such false allegations,” the attorney said.

The priest could not afford the bail bond amount and was being held Wednesday night in a county jail, although some supporters are trying to help him raise money, Bird said.

Cuevas remains a priest, but is not allowed to performed any ministry duties, according to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg said Wednesday that the teenager came forward as a result of a previous announcement at the church last week that Cuevas was being removed because of the allegations involving the adults. Archdiocese staff quickly called the police about the girl’s complaint and accompanied her to the police station to file a report, Tamberg said.

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In a statement that was read at the Long Beach church’s most recent weekend Masses, the archdiocese said it “takes all such matters seriously and considers both allegations to be credible. This week, the archdiocese took action to remove Father Cuevas from all ministry and he will be living privately pending the outcome of these matters.”

Cuevas, who was ordained as a priest in 1974, has worked in Los Angeles archdiocese churches since 2003, first at St. Philip Neri Catholic Church in Lynwood for about two years before moving to St. Athanasius in Long Beach. He also served for Comboni Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus order.

Long Beach police investigators urge anyone with information about the case or other incidents to call the Sex Crimes Detail’s tip line at (562) 570-7878. Anonymous tips may be submitted by visiting https://www.tipsoft.com.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles is requesting that anyone with information about the allegations or other incidents to contact the archdiocesan Office of Victims Assistance Ministry at (213) 637-7650.

larry.gordon@latimes.com


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