A young priest accused of molesting a teenage girl stood, head bowed, inside a Sacramento courtroom jail cell Thursday as lawyers argued whether he was a threat to the community.
During a contentious bail hearing on behalf of the Rev. Uriel Ojeda, a deputy district attorney told Judge Marjorie Koller that the priest had confessed to sexually abusing the girl, who belonged to the Woodland parish where he served until 2009. Prosecutor Allison Dunham said the priest confessed to an investigator for the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento shortly after being informed of the allegations.
"The defendant admitted to molesting the child," Dunham said.
Ojeda's lawyer, Sacramento defense attorney Jesse Ortiz, disputed Dunham's account and said his client is being punished by diocesan officials who dislike him.
"Are you suggesting that the diocese made all of this up?" Koller asked, looking perplexed.
"Yes, we are," Ortiz responded.
Ojeda surrendered to authorities Nov. 30 after members of the diocese traveled to his Redding parish and brought him back to Sacramento. He has been jailed for more than a month on seven counts of lewd and lascivious acts with a child occurring over two years and ending in August 2009.
The priest's bail had been set at $5 million, in part because he was deemed a flight risk. On Thursday, Koller reduced bail to $700,000, the maximum recommended under court guidelines for such a case.
Ojeda, 32, who was ordained a little more than four years ago in Sacramento, has yet to enter a plea.
A large and vocal band of Ojeda's former parishioners in Woodland and Redding have supported him during his incarceration, praying and singing outside the Sacramento County Main Jail, raising money for his defense and setting up a website in his name.
About 200 of them came to downtown Sacramento for Thursday's bail hearing, and pledged their support for Ojeda even as details of the prosecution's allegations leaked out. Many who had gathered outside the jail's main entrance erupted into cheers and chants after his lawyer said he likely would be bailed out Thursday night.
Dozens more parishioners from Ojeda's former churches packed the courtroom and jammed hallways, many of them wearing shirts imprinted with his image.
Ortiz pointed to them during the bail hearing. "Who better to ask about whether Father Uriel is a threat to the community?" he asked Koller. He said the priest gave parishioners money, "even his own coat and clothing," and ministered to the sick and dying.
As to whether Ojeda is a flight risk, Ortiz said it would be wrong to assign that label to him simply because of his Mexican heritage. Although he spent part of his childhood in Mexico, Ortiz said, he is an American citizen and "no longer has ties" to that country other than occasional vacations.
Ortiz suggested that Ojeda was wrongly being compared to three former priests in the Sacramento Diocese who fled to Mexico to avoid prosecution in the 1990s.
He also pointed to the case of a local principal, Robert Adams, who is accused of molesting children at his now-shuttered Creative Frontiers School in Citrus Heights. Adams' bail was set at $250,000.
"All I ask of you, your honor, is to treat Father Ojeda as the court treats everyone else," Ortiz said.
Dunham then dropped the prosecution's bombshell, laying out details of the case against Ojeda and arguing against reducing bail.
She said Ojeda "befriended the victim's family," and regularly stayed overnight at their home. One night, she said, he woke the teen and "she discovered his hand" touching her vagina. She grabbed his hand, pushed it away and rolled over, Dunham said. "She thought it was a nightmare."
The molestation continued after the diocese transferred Ojeda from Holy Rosary parish in Woodland to Our Lady of Mercy in Redding, Dunham said. She said he caressed the girl, told her he loved her, kissed her on the lips, touched her breasts and exposed himself to her.
Ojeda "admits to more than 10 sexual encounters with the victim," Dunham said. If convicted, she said, he could be sentenced to prison for 20 years.
Dunham said the priest made the confessions to an investigator for the diocese, an assertion that Ortiz challenged.
"We dispute what she said. He did not say those things," Ortiz said.
He charged that the diocese "always has had an issue with Ojeda, an animosity against him" that might have led to the charges.
A diocesan spokesman, Kevin Eckery, said the case against Ojeda had nothing to do with a personal grudge. "We acted as the public would expect us to do," he said.
Members of the diocese and its investigator drove to Redding on Nov. 30 to discuss the allegations, brought to their attention by a relative of the teen, Eckery said. He said Ojeda confessed during the car ride back to Sacramento that day.
Eckery said the diocese was shocked by the allegations against Ojeda, who he said "was marked for great things."
In deciding bail, Koller said she would not consider the Adams case, "which I know nothing about," and emphasized that the court was not prejudiced against Ojeda because of his Mexican heritage.
"It makes no difference to me what his last name is," she said.
But he spent part of his childhood in Mexico, "and the fact that he has acquaintances in Mexico is relevant," she said. Ortiz requested that bail be set at $250,000. Dunham asked that bail "remain as set, or be tripled or doubled." The judge settled on $700,000.
Once released, Ojeda will wear an ankle bracelet with a GPS tracking device. He will be required to stay within the Sacramento area.
The priest's lawyer declined to discuss where Ojeda will stay during the legal process. Eckery said the diocese has offered to house him, "but his attorney said it would not be necessary."
Ojeda has been on administrative leave since his arrest, and even when released, would not be reinstated any time in the near future, said Eckery. "Any priest who makes an admission like this is ineligible" to serve, he said. "He remains suspended."
Ortiz said his client would be pleading not guilty to all charges. "Pleading not guilty is all I would be prepared to say at this time," he said when pressed as to whether his client disputes the allegations.
Outside the courthouse Thursday, one of Ojeda's former parishioners, Sylvia Chavez of Woodland, reiterated her belief that Sacramento Bishop Jaime Soto and others in the diocese are jealous of Ojeda's popularity and want to punish him.
"We feel relieved that he is getting out of jail," Chavez said. "Father should not have been in there in the first place."