A priest who crawled into the bed of a 13-year-old girl to molest her when he was an overnight guest in her parent's home admitted his betrayal to his victim and her family Friday in a case that unnerved Sacramento's Catholic community for more than 20 months.
"My actions were of a weak and sinful man," the Rev. Uriel Ojeda said in his first public admission to molesting the girl first when he worked at Holy Rosary Parish in Woodland and later after he had been transferred to Our Lady of Mercy in Redding.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Eugene L. Balonon then sentenced Ojeda, 33, to eight years in prison for touching the girl in a manner that "constitutes substantial sexual conduct" under the California Penal Code.
Ojeda's remarks came in front of a courtroom nearly packed with supporters who have maintained his innocence from the day of his Nov. 30, 2011, arrest through the no-contest plea he entered July 5.
They continued to back Ojeda even after a days-long hearing in which a priest representing the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento and a private investigator for the church testified that Ojeda had admitted to them that he molested the girl.
At Friday's sentencing, some of Ojeda's backers wept quietly while others shook their heads or sat stone-faced and silent, first when Deputy District Attorney Allison Dunham read the victim impact statements from the girl and her parents, and then when Ojeda himself admitted to his sin.
"You traumatized me," the victim, who is now 17, said in her 10-page letter to Ojeda and the court.
When he spoke, Ojeda first said, "I would like for the record to show my plea is of no contest." But, he added, "for the benefit of my own soul and salvation, I do want to apologize first to the family and victim. I am sorry."
Ojeda also apologized to Sacramento Bishop Jaime Soto. And with the Vatican in the process of having him removed from the priesthood, he offered "as my final acts of a priest, to apologize to all priests who serve faithfully before God for bringing shame to the priesthood."
He apologized to his supporters, too, some whom wore T-shirts that said in Spanish, "Father Uriel, we love you, we support you and are with you."
If any of them still maintained, as they had earlier, that he was an innocent victim of a diocesan conspiracy, Ojeda's own words served to scotch those beliefs.
"I have committed a crime and serious sin," Ojeda said, before asking "everybody for forgiveness and that they do find mercy for me."
It may take a while for his victim and her parents to get there. The girl's mother and father asked God to grant him those things, but their letters reflected neither mercy nor forgiveness.
Ojeda, the parents said, "betrayed our friendship and trust, destroyed our family" and bruised "our lives and our daughter's life."
"You harmed our faith, leaving a deep wound in our hearts and our souls with your sick and perverse acts," they said, before going on to call Ojeda "an immature and childish coward."
As a result of his molestation of their daughter, they have been harassed and ostracized from the community, the parents said, "and we seem to live in fear and constant anxiety."
They said Ojeda's "dark life and rotten behavior" deserved more than eight years in prison.
Their daughter told Ojeda she has overcome the trauma of his abuse "because I spoke up."
In her letter, she said it is "upsetting to think I was a victim of molestation, a victim that was molested by a priest, by you. That's pathetic."
"I never understood how you could have done the things you did and then go back to church and preach and act all clean and holy, as if you're some kind of god to people," the girl wrote. She said Ojeda "devalued the meaning of being a Catholic."
She said most girls in their early teenage years have their "little dream" to "be woken up with a kiss, a kiss from their Prince Charming." For her, she said, that dream turned into a nightmare when she woke up in the middle of the night to find Ojeda standing over her and stealing her dream right off her lips.
"You took the kiss from me," she said. "Remember how scared I was when I woke up, and remember how you laughed in my face and walked out of the room like nothing?"
Prosecutors initially charged Ojeda with seven acts of molestation against the girl, dating from June 29, 2007, to Aug. 30, 2009. Leaving the courtroom after the sentencing, Deputy DA Dunham characterized the victim as "a remarkable girl."
"She was prepared to testify," Dunham said, "and the resolution was appropriate given the circumstances in this case."
In earlier hearings in front of Balonon, Ojeda sought to have the damaging statements he made on the day of his arrest excluded on grounds of "penitent's privilege," or the expectation of confidentiality that comes with a congregant reconciling a wrongdoing with a spiritual leader. The judge denied the priest's motion.
Although evidence from the previous hearings suggested Ojeda was ready from the day he was removed from his ministry to have the case resolved, defense attorney Jesse Ortiz said he insisted his client keep silent until the defense was sure "the people could prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt."
Ortiz said Ojeda "succumbed to weakness," but that "what he did speaks to many other issues within the church that need to be resolved, such as priests being able to marry and having these priests come in at such a young age and being indoctrinated within the system.
"He started in the seminary when he was 10. I think the church needs to look closely within itself to help resolve these issues. Otherwise, things like this are going to happen," Ortiz said.
Diocesan spokesman Kevin Eckery said Ortiz' comments are "beside the point."
"His client said he is guilty," Eckery said. "His client apologized for having done things, and I think we should leave it at that. The rest of it is so much rationalizing. There's not much to rationalize in a grown man abusing a 13-year-old girl."
Call The Bee's Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.