Claims of sexual abuse by former Southside priest results in calls to stay execution 

The church of St. Clare’s, a symbol of faith and piety for some in this small Southside community, has become an icon of the fear and shame others here have kept buried for decades. In recent weeks, nearly half a dozen current and former parishioners have come forward claiming they were sexually abused by former St. Clare’s priest Father Federico Fernandez.

And the gathering of voices is now calling on Governor Rick Perry to stay the execution of death-row inmate Humberto Leal, Jr., scheduled for lethal injection on July 7, in order to help prosecute a case against the priest. Lawyers for Leal say their client fell victim to Fernandez soon after the priest joined the church in 1983 and note that complaints of abuse dogged Fernandez during his time in San Antonio.

Fernandez, who was charged with indecency with a child in 1988, a case that ultimately fell apart, denies any wrongdoing.

“I really felt like the church was my calling,” said a soft-spoken man now in his 40s, who asked not to be identified in this story. “I still love the church, but this man almost ruined that.”

Standing in the St. Clare’s parking lot, the man recalled regularly attending Bible classes and serving as an altar boy, and how Fernandez would take him and others to swimming pools and water parks in the summer. When he was 15, Fernandez drew him into a room alone and began to strip naked in front of him, he said. “This man hurt kids. I know I’m not the only one and I know he did worse,” said the man, who said he hasn’t told his friends or family of the abuse to this day.

Leal, convicted in the brutal 1994 rape and murder of a Southside teenage girl [See “Illegal Injections,” May 25, 2011], recently revealed troubling and vivid details of abuse by the Franciscan priest when he was a young St. Clare’s parishioner, his lawyers say. Other self-identified victims of the priest, who now practices in Bogotá, Colombia, have come forward in the hopes that their story can help stay Leal’s fast-approaching execution and persuade authorities to investigate and prosecute Fernandez.

Allegations of misconduct began to plague Fernandez soon after he joined St. Clare’s in 1983, said René, a former church member who asked only to be identified by his first name to protect his family.

René began attending St. Clare’s as a child in the 1950s and saw all six of his own children baptized in the church. He was a youth minister at St. Clare’s when Fernandez arrived and recalled being uneasy with the priest from the start. He remembered alarming stories from children and other members, and that one nun, who he knew as Sister Maria, warned him to keep his children away from Fernandez, claiming the priest was an “evil man.” René eventually grew combative with Fernandez and tried warning church officials who, he said, were largely aware of the allegations but chose to ignore them.

René also told of rumors that Fernandez convinced children to remove their clothes while reenacting stories from the Bible at the church. In sworn affidavits filed with Leal’s clemency petition last week, some of Fernandez’s alleged victims told similar stories.

One wrote that when he was 11 years old, Fernandez asked him to play the role of Jesus while they were alone together in his room. “He gave me a loincloth to put on … He told me that since Jesus did not wear any pants, I should take mine off,” the victim wrote. “He looked at me naked. He was coming towards me as I was putting on the loincloth. At that moment, he stopped because someone walked in the room.”

René and his family left St. Clare’s for another parish in 1984, but late last year one of his own family members came forward saying that she had been sexually abused by Fernandez as a child. “That priest needs to be brought to the United States, and our DA needs to open a case. … That priest deserves to be in jail,” René said.

René said he remembered Leal and his family from the neighborhood. “I don’t have a whole lot of love for that family, but from what I know now, I don’t think that kid should be executed,” he said. “If [Leal is] like that, if he did what they say, it’s because the priest made him that way.”

Facing physical abuse from his own parents at home, Leal sought refuge in the church as a child, his lawyers say. When nuns would scold him for misbehaving in communion class, he was sent to Father Fernandez for punishment. Leal began to detail the alleged abuse during an evaluation in March conducted by David Lisak, a clinical psychologist and expert in the field of male sexual abuse hired by Leal’s defense team. Lisak said that Leal described textbook “grooming” techniques commonly associated with child abusers, saying Fernandez’s behavior escalated from inappropriate touching to exposing himself to a young Leal in a church bathroom. Repeated groping eventually culminated in anal rape when Leal was 11 years old, Lisak said.

Lisak also said Leal’s disclosure was marked with what he called anguish, intense humiliation, shame and “emotional states that at times were so intense that he could not continue speaking.”

In 1983, around the same time he joined St. Clare’s, police arrested Fernandez after a local swimming pool manager claimed the priest had been exposing himself to young girls. According to court records, the manager claimed attorneys with the local diocese approached him when he showed up in court to testify against Fernandez, convincing him to drop the charges and let the church handle the matter internally.

Then in 1988 Fernandez was indicted on charges of indecency with a child when two neighborhood boys came forward and accused the priest of molestation. At the time, fearing the children would crumble on the stand if forced to publicly testify, then-Bexar County District Attorney Fred Rodriguez struck a deal with Fernandez’s lawyers in which the priest would plead guilty and face a lesser sentence of 10 years probation and mandated psychiatric counseling. The deal also would have kept Fernandez away from children and out of the priesthood.

Current Bexar County DA Susan Reed, the state district judge overseeing the case at the time, refused to accept the agreement, saying she wouldn’t negotiate with child molesters. Charges were eventually dropped, sparking a war of words between Reed and the DA’s office, each accusing the other of botching the case.

“I feel very sorry for the children in this case, either way they go, but I’ll tell you what: You are not going to come sneaking deals or trying to pressure me into deals that are inappropriate, and particularly when you have the resources the district attorney has to handle this kind of situation,” Reed told the Associated Press at the time.

The prosecutor in the case felt otherwise, telling reporters, “She dismissed the case and ignored the cry of these children. … Once again, they have been victimized, not by priests, but by the judge.”

Fernandez left San Antonio later that year. Last week, Deacon Pat Rodgers, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of San Antonio, said the church was looking into the most recent allegations and had forwarded Leal’s claims to the international order of Franciscan priests.

Sandra Babcock, Leal’s lawyer and a Northwestern University law professor, said the Franciscans had confirmed that Fernandez is still a priest at the Templo de San Francisco in Bogotá. When the Current called, a man who answered the phone at the church refused to give his name and insisted there was no Father Fernandez there. On a second phone call, however, a man who identified himself as Father Fernandez denied all allegations, claiming he never met Leal and had never lived in San Antonio.

A number of victims’ rights organizations have called on Texas Governor Rick Perry to stay Leal’s execution, saying his testimony could be essential in prosecuting Fernandez. “We now know [Fernandez] has done this same thing before,” said Barbara Garcia Boehland, director of the local chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “We believe he’s still out there doing this and we need Mr. Leal to help us put him away.” Boehland’s own son committed suicide four years after another local priest sexually abused him, she said.

Father William Spencer, head of the international order of Franciscan priests, wrote to state officials late last week saying that while he couldn’t confirm the allegations of abuse, “I also understand how the public record regarding Father Fernandez raises questions that warrant caution in imposing the severest penalty our Society can demand.”

But the Bexar County DA’s office hasn’t given much credence to Leal’s recent claims, saying the last-minute appeal seems suspect. Enrico Valdez, head of the DA’s appellate division, said, “[Leal] has had 16 years of post-trial litigation to bring this up, and obviously he waited until the last hour to bring this forward.”

According to Lisak, however, delayed outcry is actually normal in cases of sexual abuse. “Especially for men who are sexually abused, it’s common for them to deny it and hide it for a long period of time, and often times they never disclose it.”

Further complicating matters is the fact that Leal, a Mexican national on death row, was denied access to his consulate during the initial trial and punishment phase of his case, a violation of a crucial international convention the U.S. relies on. His case has become embroiled in an international controversy U.S. officials are still trying to iron out.

In conjunction with his clemency petition last week, a wide range of former U.S. diplomats, retired military leaders, and other high-level officials urged Texas to stay Leal’s execution while Congress works on a legislative fix that would have Leal’s case reviewed, in line with the wishes of the International Court of Justice at the Hague. On Tuesday U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont introduced a bill that would require a federal review of the outstanding controversial death penalty cases, and Babcock argues that the review would give her the opportunity to present what she calls glaring errors in the case against Leal.

Babcock also claims Leal’s initial defense was hopelessly deficient, and says these claims of sexual abuse at the hands of a priest could have persuaded jurors away from the death penalty.

Valdez said the DA’s office still would not be able to bring a case against Father Fernandez for the alleged assault against Leal, regardless of how true the claims may be. Though Texas abolished any statute of limitation on sexual abuse of a child cases in 2007, the statute applicable at the time of Leal’s alleged abuse rules out any prosecution of his specific case today, Valdez said.

“I think the larger point is that an investigation is warranted to determine just how many children were victimized and to ascertain the circumstances surrounding the abuse – including the age of the victims – before concluding that a prosecution is impossible,” Babcock wrote in an email. Within just two weeks of searching, Babcock’s investigator found four more victims who claimed Fernandez sexually abused them – victims who had never before come forward.

“If we found that many within such a short time, it seems highly likely to us that there are many others out there we don’t know about,” she said. •

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