Hector Amezcua / hamezcua@sacbee.com

Bee file, 2012. The Rev. Uriel Ojeda, left, leaves the Sacramento County Courthouse with his attorney, Jesse Ortiz.

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Key pretrial hearing scheduled for priest accused of molestation

Published: Saturday, Jun. 22, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Saturday, Jun. 22, 2013 - 8:59 am

Attorneys have scheduled a crucial pretrial hearing for next week on whether statements the Rev. Uriel Ojeda made to church officials before his arrest on child molestation charges can be used against him at trial.

Ojeda has claimed a "penitent's privilege" for the statements he made to two employees of the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento after they drove up to the Redding parish where he worked to question him about the sexual abuse allegations made by the family of a 14-year-old girl.

Sources said Friday that Sacramento prosecutors have offered Ojeda an eight-year deal if he enters a plea in the case, and Sacramento Superior Court Judge Eugene L. Balonon's ruling on the issue of the privilege could go a long way toward affecting the priest's decision whether to accept an agreement.

Neither Deputy District Attorney Allison Dunham nor defense lawyer Jesse Ortiz would comment Friday on the hearing scheduled Tuesday.

At a Jan. 5, 2012, court hearing, Dunham said Ojeda admitted to molesting the girl in conversations he had with the church officials. Dunham said at the hearing that the priest, who is now 33 years old, admitted to having sexual contact with the girl more than 10 times. She wants his statements to the church officials admitted at trial.

Ortiz disputed Dunham's account of Ojeda's comments.

"He did not say those things," Ortiz said at the court hearing. He wants the conversation excluded from the jury's consideration.

Diocesan spokesman Kevin Eckery said Friday that Ojeda made the statements Nov. 30, 2011, to a priest and an investigator who drove up from Sacramento to Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Redding. They made the trip after the girl's family reported the allegations against Ojeda two days earlier.

"He admitted he had abused this girl," Eckery said. "Neither was there for any kind of pastoral reason. They were there to bring him back to Sacramento."

John E.B. Myers, a professor at McGeorge School of Law, said the idea of the "penitent's privilege," where a congregant reconciles his or her wrongdoing with a spiritual leader with an expectation of confidentiality, is similar to protections that apply in conversations between an accused criminal and his lawyer, psychologist or physician.

Under the state Evidence Code, Myers said, the requirement of the privilege is that the communications in question have to be made in a confidential setting and not in the presence of any third person "as far as the penitent is aware."

There also must be "a spiritual connection" to the communications, Myers added, and a cleric then "has a duty to keep them secret – that's the basic privilege."

According to Myers, "The identity of the third person and their role could be significant," which could be a factor in Ojeda's case in the person of the church investigator.

"There may have been no expectation that this was a penitential communication, as they're called," Myers said. "Those are questions of fact, and that's why they're having a hearing."

At next week's privilege hearing, court officials said the prosecution and defense lawyers will both call expert witnesses on canon law. Other pretrial motions are likely to be heard after the privilege issue is resolved. Jury selection is scheduled to begin July 16.

Ojeda is accused in the seven-count complaint with molesting the girl three times in Sacramento County between June 29, 2007, and June 30, 2009, while he was working as a priest at Holy Rosary Parish in Woodland.

He is named in four more counts of molesting the same girl in Shasta County while at his parish in Redding between July 2, 2009, and Aug. 30, 2009.

At court hearings after his late 2011 arrest, dozens of supporters showed up to express their belief in Ojeda's innocence. He had become especially popular among young people, who chanted and played percussion instruments in expressing their support for him.

As many as 100 backers of the young priest are expected to appear at Sacramento Superior Court when the trial begins.

Eckery, the diocesan spokesman, called it "a very painful case for a lot of reasons."

"A 14-year-old girl was abused," Eckery said. "The promising career of a rock star priest was cut short. A lot of people's faith in the church was shaken, and a lot of people are going to be disappointed in Ojeda when the trial is done. But I really hope justice is served."

Call The Bee's Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.

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