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    The Rev. Uriel Ojeda, left, walks to court with attorney Jesse Ortiz as they are followed by supporters before he took a plea deal in his molestation case in Sacramento Superior Court on Friday.


    The Rev. Uriel Ojeda, left, walks to court with attorney Jesse Ortiz as they are followed by supporters before he took a plea deal in his molestation case in Sacramento Superior Court on Friday.

Sacramento priest accepts plea deal in molestation case

Published: Saturday, Jul. 6, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Monday, Jul. 8, 2013 - 8:24 am

Grudgingly, one of the nation's leading critics of the Catholic Church's handling of sexual abuse by priests credited the Sacramento Diocese with doing some things right in the prosecution of the Rev. Uriel Ojeda.

The 33-year-old priest pleaded no contest Friday to a single count of molesting a 13-year-old girl and admitted to engaging in "substantial sexual conduct" with her, which will likely bring him eight years in state prison.

David Clohessy, the St. Louis-based director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said Sacramento church officials did "the bare minimum" to make sure a case was filed against Ojeda after the victim's father first made accusations against the cleric two years ago.

"Tragically, because for decades bishops refused to do even that, then by comparison, it makes Sacramento church officials look better," Clohessy said. "On the one hand, I think it's important to acknowledge progress where progress really happens. But by the same token, it's hard to define doing the bare minimum in child sex cases as real progress."

Clohessy said Bishop Jaime Soto also should have cracked down on the dozens of Ojeda supporters who packed courtrooms and danced and chanted outside the jail after the priest's Nov. 30, 2011, arrest. He said the church should have done more to publicize Ojeda's misdeed and to shake the trees in the parishes where the reverend worked to find other potential victims.

Diocesan spokesman Kevin Eckery said church officials did go to Holy Rosary Parish in Woodland and Our Lady of Mercy in Redding and read announcements to inform congregants about the charges.

The bishop also "made it very clear" at the time of the arrest "that his concerns were for the victim" and he barred Ojeda's backers from organizing fundraisers on church property, Eckery said.

A couple of dozen Ojeda supporters were on hand Friday in Sacramento Superior Court, and some of them wept after the priest replied "no contest" when he was asked how he pled to a single count of molesting a 13-year-old girl. They also heard him say, "I admit," when Judge Eugene L. Balonon asked him if he engaged in "substantial sexual conduct" with the girl.

Afterward, one of them clutched Eckery in a sarcastic embrace and repeatedly told him, "Congratulations." Another, Sylvia Chavez, told reporters the case "was all based on a plan that was formulated by the diocese and the bishop, and everything was false."

During the proceeding, Ojeda's discomfort was most apparent when he officially entered his plea after Deputy District Attorney Allison Dunham read the facts of the charge against him.

Dunham told the court that sometime between June 29, 2007, and June 30, 2009, in Sacramento County, when Ojeda was posted at the parish in Woodland, he "entered the victim's bedroom at night when everyone in the household was asleep."

"She woke up and the defendant was lying next to her in bed," the prosecutor said.

Dunham said Ojeda then reached underneath the girl's pajamas and touched her in a manner that "constitutes substantial sexual conduct with a child under the age of 14 years, to wit, 13 years," for his own sexual purposes.

In exchange for the plea, the DA's Office dropped six other felony counts involving the same victim that could have brought Ojeda 20 years in prison.

Balonon scheduled sentencing for Aug. 2.

"This is a fair resolution of the case based upon the facts and circumstances," Dunham said in a statement. "The victim and her family can move forward with their lives and be proud that they had the courage to report the abuse to the Sacramento Diocese and law enforcement."

Ojeda's attorney, Jesse Ortiz, called the case tough for Ojeda, his supporters, the victim and her family – "everybody."

Ortiz said Ojeda's decision to accept the plea bargain was equally difficult.

"We always felt that we would be successful at trial, but going through the risks and understanding that the ultimate decision is in the hands of jurors, and we don't even know who they are at this point, it was just something he wasn't prepared to do," Ortiz said.

Friday's plea came two days after Balonon ruled against Ojeda' effort to exclude statements he allegedly made admitting the molestation. The judge said Ojeda's conversation about the allegations with church officials was not covered by a clergy-penitent's privilege.

Ojeda had discussed the matter with the Rev. Timothy Nondorf, an aide to Soto, and to Joseph Sheehan, a former FBI agent who was working as a private investigator on contract with the law firm that represents the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento.

Nondorf and Sheehan had driven from Sacramento to Ojeda's parish in Redding a day after the victim's father made the allegation against the priest. They then brought Ojeda back to Sacramento and turned him over to Sacramento police, after submitting details of the father's complaint to the county's Child Protective Services.

In a statement Eckery distributed to reporters outside the courtroom, Soto credited "the courage of a young woman and her family" to come forward and press the case. He said their actions "stopped the violence from happening to others."

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

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