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  • Hector Amezcua / hamezcua@sacbee.com

    The Rev. Uriel Ojeda waits for an elevator during a break in his pretrial hearing Tuesday in Sacramento Superior Court. Ojeda is charged with molesting the teenage daughter of a parishioner.

  • Hector Amezcua / hamezcua@sacbee.com

    The Rev. Uriel Ojeda is accused of molesting a 14-year-old girl.

Bishop's messenger says he wasn't Ojeda's 'confessor'

Published: Wednesday, Jun. 26, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Thursday, Jun. 27, 2013 - 8:52 am

The priest said it was all about business the day he went to Redding with a private eye to see another priest who had been accused of child molestation.

He was not a "confessor," the Rev. Timothy Nondorf testified Tuesday. He was not a "spiritual director." He and Joseph Sheehan, the private investigator for the law firm retained by the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento to look out for its corporate interests – they weren't going up to Redding to deepen their "sacramental relationship" with the Rev. Uriel Ojeda.

Nondorf said his primary instruction in driving with Sheehan to Redding on Nov. 30, 2011, was to deliver to Ojeda a letter prepared by the office of Bishop Jaime Soto. The letter told Ojeda he was the subject of "credible accusations," and that he was being removed from his ministry at Our Lady of Mercy Parish.

"It was decided myself and Joseph Sheehan would drive to Redding to present the letter to Father Uriel and bring him back to Sacramento so he could face the charge," Nondorf testified in a pretrial hearing for Ojeda's upcoming child molestation trial.

The day before the drive, a parishioner complained to the diocese that his daughter "had been sexually assaulted by one of our priests," Nondorf said.

In Redding, Sheehan took a statement from Ojeda that Deputy District Attorney Allison Dunham said in court last year contained admissions by the 33-year-old priest that he had sexual contact with the girl 10 times. Ojeda has since been charged in a seven-count complaint of molesting the girl, who was then 14 years old.

In pretrial hearings that began Tuesday in Sacramento Superior Court, the attorney for Ojeda, Jesse Ortiz, is seeking to have his client's statement to the investigator ruled inadmissable on grounds of "penitent's privilege."

State law does provide for confidential communications for a penitent who confesses in a spiritual setting. Nondorf testified, however, that when he and Sheehan met with Ojeda in the rectory of the Redding church, there wasn't even a pretense of confession.

Dunham asked Nondorf if he was acting as a confessor. "No," he said. A spiritual director? "No, I was not." Did Ojeda ask to make a confession? "No, he did not." Did he ever ask to speak to a spiritual director? "No, he did not."

All of the rituals of confession were absent, Nondorf said. There was no penitential expression of sin, no Act of Contrition, no absolution.

Told of Nondorf's testimony, a McGeorge School of Law professor said Ortiz's pursuit of the privilege on behalf of his client will be a very tough climb.

"If a guy identifies himself as an investigator there's no way you could have a reasonable expectation of confidentiality, or penitential communication, it seems to me," the professor, John E.B. Myers, said in an interview.

Judge Eugene L. Balonon is not expected to rule on the motion until next week, after another day or two of testimony. On Monday, both Ortiz and Dunham are expected to put on experts on canonical law and how it meshes with the facts as told in court on Tuesday, not to mention with the California Evidence Code.

Now a parish priest in Chico, Nondorf formerly worked as priest secretary to Bishop Soto as well as vice chancellor of the diocese and assistant priest personnel director. He testified that he went to Redding as a representative of Bishop Soto.

Besides removing Ojeda from his ministry, Nondorf said he had been directed by Soto to inform the priest his salary, medical benefits and housing would be retained.

When they told Ojeda he also had to come back to Sacramento to face the charges, the priest "seemed resigned," Nondorf testified.

"He didn't emote any surprise or anger or hurt," Nondorf testified. "He was just resigned."

Nondorf testified he and Sheehan met with Ojeda in the living room of the rectory of Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Redding. On the way to Sacramento, Nondorf testified that Ojeda made the decision on his own to turn himself in to Sacramento police.

At the police station on Freeport Boulevard, Nondorf said he asked Ojeda to give him a blessing before the police took him into custody.

"I was heartbroken," Nondorf testified, his voice wavering. "Here was a young man who was going to face a few months (in jail), if not years, of a very hard life. I thought I could offer him a few moments of compassion on what was going to be a hard and ugly life. It was all I could do."

Under cross-examination from Ortiz, Nondorf said when he and Sheehan visited the priest, he never told Ojeda he had a right to a lawyer under canon, civil or criminal law, or that anything he said would be made available to the police. After the blessing, Nondorf affirmed that he told the priest to get himself a criminal lawyer and to not say anything to police until he did.

Neither attorney asked Nondorf to provide details of what Ojeda told him or Sheehan in the Redding church rectory.

Nor did they ask Sheehan, a 30-year FBI agent who has been working for the past 12 years as a private eye. Among his clients is the Elk Grove law firm of Sweeney and Greene, which retained him to investigate the father's complaint against Ojeda.

Sheehan said he spoke to Ojeda for 15 to 20 minutes. He testified Ojeda never asked that his statement be kept confidential, and that he never suggested to the priest it would be.

The investigator said he told Ojeda about the complaint and asked him "if he had any recollection of this activity." Sheehan was not asked to provide the priest's answer.

Sheehan said he told Ojeda to leave his computer behind when he packed up for the trip to Sacramento.

"I don't even want those computers turned off," Sheehan said he instructed Ojeda. There were no questions about what had been downloaded onto them or what was recovered from them.

Under questioning from Ortiz, Sheehan said he never told Ojeda he had a right to leave if he wanted, that he didn't have to talk if he didn't want to, or that anything he said would not be kept in strict confidence.

Professor Myers said Sheehan didn't have to do any of it because the investigator wasn't a law enforcement agent, wasn't deputized to be one and Ojeda wasn't in custody.

"Those are all Miranda words," on Ortiz's part, Myers said, referring to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that requires police to read criminal suspects their rights before they question them. "But I think what he may have been getting at was to try and build the argument that the priest could have thought he was speaking in a penitential way," that "maybe the guy could have reasonably expected this was something that was in confidence."

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

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Andy Furillo



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