Dorothy Small met the new priest at Woodland’s Holy Rosary Catholic Church in April 2014, and almost immediately the Rev. Renerio Sabuga Jr. began inviting her out for bicycle rides or dinner, Small says.
Within weeks, she said, the priest – known to parishioners as “Father Jong” – would confide in her with intensely private thoughts.
“I’m a man like any other man,” she recalled him telling her. “I can do everything like any other man, just from the waist up.
“I can’t have sex.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
In a matter of months, that stance changed as Small and Sabuga became close and the priest pursued her romantically until Feb. 17, 2015, when the priest “cornered (Small) in her bedroom and sexually assaulted” her, a lawsuit filed Monday in Sacramento Superior Court alleges.
The allegations in Small’s lawsuit are explosive, charging that church officials routinely ignored Small’s requests for help. Her suit was filed by Sacramento attorney Joseph George against the Sacramento Catholic Diocese, Sabuga and Holy Rosary priest Jonathan Molina.
The diocese counters that it acted forcefully to dismiss Sabuga from his duties once it learned there was a problem, and had priests read an announcement in August 2016 at two area churches where he had served. The announcement informed parishioners that officials had “received a credible allegation that Father Sabuga had conducted himself inappropriately with an adult.”
The diocese also provided 30 counseling sessions to Small to help her deal with the matter, and made clear that she could continue to attend services at the Woodland church.
“The diocese took it very seriously and wrote up the priest for, in effect, carrying on a relationship with a woman outside his vows,” diocese spokesman Kevin Eckery said. “They told him, look, you can’t do this, and he was told to stay away and reaffirm his commitment to his vows.
“Then what happened is, it came up again and he was fired.”
Once that occurred, Eckery said, Sabuga’s visa was no longer valid and he returned to the Philippines. Eckery added that Bishop Jamie Soto later met with Small to hear her concerns.
The church knows of no other sexual contact between Sabuga and parishioners, Eckery said.
Small did not report the alleged February 2015 sexual assault to police, but the lawsuit says she informed church officials, and that two she talked to later agreed Sabuga was “a predator.”
The suit also claims Sabuga’s “continuous sexual harassment” led to Woodland police being called to her home in June 2014, and that church officials did little to dissuade Sabuga other than a one-week suspension and a warning that he stay away from her residence.
Small, 62, also claims that church officials ignored her concerns, with one priest allegedly responding to her sexual assault claim by telling her, “What man wouldn’t want a piece of ass every now and then?” the lawsuit states.
She also claimed in an interview with The Bee that Sabuga made flippant comments about the so-called “11th commandment” at the church: “Thou shalt not get caught.”
Sabuga, who Small says is 16 years her junior, could not be reached for comment.
He was ordained in 2000 in the Archdiocese of Cayagan de Oro in the Philippines and was transferred out of the Woodland church to St. Clare Catholic Church in Roseville in July 2016, the lawsuit states. Small says in her lawsuit that she reported Sabuga’s actions directly to the diocese at that point because she feared he “might do the same thing with a parishioner at St. Clare’s.”
Sabuga was fired from that posting a month later.
An online directory for the archdiocese in the Philippines lists Sabuga as a parish priest there, but a request for comment from The Bee directed through the church website received no response.
Molina, who is accused in the lawsuit of not reporting Small’s concerns to the Sacramento diocese, did not respond to a telephone message at the Woodland church.
The allegations against officials at the Woodland church come four years after another priest at Holy Rosary, 33-year-old Uriel Ojeda, pleaded guilty to molesting a 13-year-old girl. Ojeda, now 37, was sentenced to eight years in prison and remains incarcerated, according to online state prison records.
Small’s claims against the diocese are not as clear cut. She conceded in an interview that she and Sabuga were drawn to each other, that they were “incredibly smitten” and that they frequently texted each other. She also says she once kissed him, but says she repeatedly told the priest that they could not have a romantic relationship.
Small, who sang in the church choir for years, also said that Sabuga offered himself up as a regular “secular counselor” who used the sessions to groom her as a potential sexual partner.
At one point while the priest was at her Woodland home having tea, he allegedly began to take off his pants and she rejected his overtures, she said.
“I said, ‘You’ve got to get yourself together,’” Small said in the interview. “You are losing it.”
She concedes she never reported the alleged February 2015 assault to Woodland police, although officers were called to her home in June 2014 after she learned Sabuga was coming to her home and she became frightened.
The police incident report states that officers were called because “her priest was on his way over to her and she was scared, possibly due to past sexual advances.”
Sabuga never arrived that night, Small says, because police cars arrived before he could.
Despite her claims, Small contends she never wanted to sue the diocese, that instead she sought additional counseling sessions from the diocese that eventually were cut off. She also claims that she left the church for a while because of the harassment, and that when she sought to return to the choir earlier this year Father Molina refused to allow her to lead the choir as cantor.
“Can Jong come back?” Molina responded when she asked about returning, the lawsuit states.