Maria Bunter heard the news over the weekend and couldn’t believe it. Not our Hector, she said. Can’t be.
But on Monday, days after a popular priest at her Davis church was arrested on allegations of sex with a 17-year-old girl, sadness joined Bunter’s disbelief as reality sank in. Hector Coria, 45, a priest at St. James Parish in Davis, was arrested by Davis police Friday on suspicion of oral copulation and statutory rape involving the teen.
Davis police allege that while a priest at St. James in 2013, Coria befriended the girl and that the two later engaged in sexual relations. Police on Monday offered little information but said search warrants yielded enough to arrest the priest Friday night. Coria remained free on bail Monday.
“We have a great deal of compassion for him and all concerned. He was a wonderful priest,” Bunter said Monday, standing with husband Walter in the parish parking lot. Coria, she said, always “found the right words” at the pulpit.
“It’s very sad,” Walter Bunter added. “But we agree with the American system and presume he’s innocent.”
One of 12 children raised in a devout Catholic family in Guadalajara, Mexico, Coria once told of the silent retreat following a mission in Honduras that led him to the clergy.
“I felt the call of God and it surprised me,” he told the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento publication Catholic Herald in 2011 while he was an associate pastor at Our Lady of the Assumption Parish in Carmichael. “I always thought I would be involved in my family’s business and have my own family. But now I was sure about my call to the priesthood.” He later said, “I want to be a caring priest, celebrating sacraments in the best way I can.”
Parishioners learned of Coria’s arrest at evening Mass on Saturday. By then, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento had placed the priest on paid administrative leave and ordered him to move out of the church. Coria can no longer function as a priest until legal proceedings have concluded, said diocesan spokesman Kevin Eckery.
“We made it very clear that we have zero tolerance for abuse in the diocese,” Eckery said. “When we find it and it’s brought to our attention, we work with law enforcement.”
The investigation of Coria continues. It’s not the first time the Sacramento diocese has tackled sex allegations and scandal. The Rev. Uriel Ojeda was sentenced in August 2013 to eight years in prison for molesting a girl in his Woodland parish, following his arrest in 2011 on suspicion of child molestation.
Other parish members learned of the Friday arrest by email, including parents of the K-8 St. James School next door to the church. Their shock and surprise were shared by the school’s principal.
In a Sunday evening email to St. James School parents provided to The Bee, principal Darrin Greer called the news “absolutely devastating.”
“The shock, sadness and disillusionment that accompanies such a news announcement is profound,” the letter continued, adding that counselors were to be on hand Monday to talk with students.
The email also contained advice for families whose children may have questions about the news and allegations. In the letter, Greer said there was no indication of inappropriate contact with students. Davis police on Monday said there were no other alleged victims.
“You’re just kind of surprised. You didn’t see that coming,” said Johnny Voss, 17, of Davis, whose younger siblings attend St. James and whose family was among those who received emails of Coria’s arrest.
Merry Hart of Davis waited to pick up her grandchild from school Monday. She said her daughter was impressed at how quickly school officials alerted parents of the arrest.
“She was very impressed with the fact that the principal notified people immediately,” Hart said. “It takes a lot of guts to do that.”
Eckery attended Saturday’s Mass in Davis and saw parishioners as they absorbed the news of Coria’s arrest. Emotions ranged broadly from shock to stoicism and disappointment.
“Shock, surprise, then ultimately the realization – you worry about a possible victim. It’s always a serious situation,” Eckery said. “It’s difficult on a parish when allegations take place like this.”
Call The Bee’s Darrell Smith, (916) 321-1040.