Lawsuit filed in priest sex abuse case
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Las Cruces is facing a lawsuit by the alleged sexual abuse victim of former St. Helena Parish priest Ricardo Bauza, which asserts the diocese facilitated sexual battery and assisted Bauza in evading authorities.
A 10-page lawsuit against the diocese and church, as well as Bauza himself, was filed Monday in Third Judicial District Court in Doña Ana County by two law firms.
Connie Flores of the Las Cruces and El Paso law firm of Flores, Tawney & Acosta, P.C., and the Law Offices of Brad D. Hall, LLC, of Albuquerque are representing the adult male victim of an alleged 2016 incident reported to the Hobbs Police Department in August 2017 by two church employees.
Hobbs police filed a criminal complaint in October 2017 that charged Bauza with criminal sexual contact, a misdemeanor, following an investigation into the matter in which a victim reported Bauza joined him in the shower at the church rectory and touched his body. He explained to police he contacted Bauza about using the rectory shower since his own apartment’s shower wasn’t working. The alleged incident was reported to authorities after the victim told two male church employees what happened when they had been discussing Bauza’s behavior in May 2017.
A press release issued Tuesday by his attorneys states the victim is suing the diocese, alleging church officials facilitated Bauza’s abuse and helped him flee the state.
“The plaintiff, referred to in the lawsuit filed today as ‘John Doe 81,’ was sexually abused by Fr. Ricardo Bauza, the pastor of St. Helena Parish in Hobbs, New Mexico,” it stated. “When parish employees notified Bishop Oscar Cantú of the abuse allegations in the summer of 2017, Fr. Bauza was quietly removed from the Parish under the guise of a ‘long-planned sabbatical.’ It appears that Fr. Bauza was subsequently transported out of the state. The whistlerblowers were later fired from the Parish, in apparent retaliation for reporting the abuse to the Bishop.”
The release continues that Cantú didn’t inform St. Helena parishioners of allegations until Hobbs police filed the charge and the media reported on it in November 2017.
“In a press release issued on November 30, 2017, Bishop Cantú admitted that ‘he did not want to make this matter public,’” the release states. “No explanation was offered for allegedly helping Fr. Bauza flee the state — in keeping with a long tradition of similar cover-ups by other bishops across the United States.”
As mentioned above, after allegations became public, Cantú released a signed statement through the diocese that addressed the matter and he later visited Hobbs and conducted Mass at St. Helena.
“When I was informed of the accusations this past summer, I asked Fr. Ricardo to absent himself from the parish and enter a treatment center for therapy,” Cantú stated in the November 2017 letter. “I also offered the victims counseling services should they desire. Fr. Ricardo had planned to take a month-long theology course in England. He had to cancel those plans so that he could enter therapy immediately.”
Cantú continued he had not seen the police report and couldn’t comment on it, at that time. He also stated the charge against Bauza is a criminal matter and it’s “not appropriate” to comment until the police investigation is complete. He also explained in the letter he did not make the matter public, citing he wanted to respect the privacy of the “accusers, as well as the accused,” but that he did inform them they were “always free to file a police report.”
“The Diocese is committed to maintaining a safe environment in our parishes and schools, and is doing all that is possible to make this commitment a reality,” Cantú later wrote. “I urge you to withhold judgement and not engage in gossip or speculation, especially when we are not aware of all of the facts.”
The lawsuit indicates the victim “suffered and continues to suffer” serious emotional distress as a result of the sexual abuse, detailing he suffers from embarassment, humiliation, loss of self-esteem, depression and other damages. It concludes that the victim “prays” the defendants (diocese, church and Bauza) are cited to appear and answer, that on final trial, judgments are made against them for monetary damages.
“The Bishop’s public statement demonstrates a lack of conviction,” Flores stated. “Why order Fr. Bauza to therapy if he didn’t believe the allegations? And if he believed the allegations, why not report them to the police himself ? Why continued to tell parishioners that Fr. Bauza is on ‘sabbatical?’”
In January, following several months of the chuch being led by priests in an interim basis, St. Helena Church was assigned a new priest, Fr. Joe Pacquing.
“Regarding ongoing litigation, we don’t have any comment at this time,” said Fr. Enrique Lopez, chancellor of the Diocese of Las Cruces.
As of Tuesday, Bauza has not been arrested on the warrant, according to Hobbs Police Chief Chris McCall, more than three months after the charge was first filed in Hobbs Magistrate Court. McCall said Tuesday the warrant remains “outstanding” and the detective who was intially assigned the case has retired.
“The detective that was reassigned to the case this month will be in contact with the diocese and to followup,” McCall added.
Bauza was first assigned to St. Helena in 2014 after serving a Las Cruces parish for nine years. He joined the Las Cruces diocese in 2003 and was later ordained into the priesthood in 2005.