D.C. police on Wednesday arrested a priest from a large Northwest parish that is a hub for the region’s Latino Catholics, charging him with sexually abusing a teenager at the church in 2015, officials said.
According to a Wednesday letter from the archdiocese to its priests, the priest’s superior at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart and the parish’s coordinator of child protection both “failed to follow appropriate protocols related to reporting claims” to the police and to the archdiocese.
That superior, a popular priest, was removed as pastor and the child protection coordinator was placed on leave, the letter said.
Urbano Vazquez, 46, of Northeast Washington was charged with second-degree child sexual abuse in connection with an incident at the Shrine in May 2015.
According to a D.C. police report, a 13-year-old girl told police that Vasquez put his hand down her shirt on two occasions on her bare skin. Vazquez was identified as a “pastor of that church that abuse occurred at,” the police report said. He was 42 at the time, the report said.
The Shrine of the Sacred Heart, which is at 3211 Sacred Heart Way NW, is a large parish in Columbia Heights. Vasquez served as a parochial vicar, which is an assistant to the pastor.
Vazquez is a member of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, a fellowship of priests, and was not ordained by the Archdiocese of Washington. The archdiocese grants some Capuchins permission to work in its churches, including Sacred Heart.
In a written statement Wednesday night, the archdiocese said “additional allegations against Father Vazquez were reported” since the teenager came forward last month. Church officials released no further details about those allegations. The statement directed anyone with information to contact police.
Chieko Noguchi, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said the Capuchins informed the archdiocese and police about the allegation involving Vazquez on Oct. 26. The archdiocese cannot discipline Vazquez because he is not one of its priests, but it immediately revoked his permission to work at Washington churches. He has lost his position at Sacred Heart, Noguchi said.
Noguchi said that the archdiocese did not inform parishioners at Sacred Heart until Wednesday to avoid disrupting the police investigation.
During the investigation, she said, the archdiocese learned that the Rev. Moises Villalta, the pastor at Sacred Heart and another Capuchin priest, had known earlier about the allegation and had failed to report it. That is a violation of archdiocese guidelines, and Villalta’s permission to work in the Washington archdiocese also was revoked, Noguchi said.
The letter to priests also mentions the child protection coordinator’s removal.
Archdiocese policy requires “criminal background checks, applications and education for all employees and volunteers who work with young people,” and Vazquez cleared the background check and other requirements, the statement said.
Vazquez is in police custody and could not be reached. Efforts to reach the Capuchins were not immediately successful. Contact information for Villalta could not immediately be obtained.
Vazquez has been a parochial vicar at the church since 2014, church officials said.
The charges come as the Catholic Church in the United States is in the midst of a sexual abuse crisis, with several bishops losing their positions over the issue this year and the entire U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops scheduled to focus on it at its annual fall meeting next week.
Just a few weeks ago, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who had headed the Washington archdiocese. Wuerl had been criticized for not acting strongly against abusive priests when he headed the diocese in Pittsburgh.
Wuerl’s immediate predecessor, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, was removed from ministry by the Vatican following allegations that he molested a teenage altar boy nearly 50 years ago, before he was in Washington. Subsequently, The Washington Post and other media reported that McCarrick had been accused of sexual misconduct with one other minor and with several young adult priests and seminarians — including two cases involving adults that his previous dioceses in New Jersey had known about and settled out of court.
The allegations had been rumored for years, leading Washington parishioners to question whether Wuerl knew about McCarrick’s behavior.
Wuerl came under further condemnation later in the summer, when a Pennsylvania grand jury released a major investigation into decades of clergy sexual abuse. The report in part focused on Wuerl’s approach to handling abusive priests while he was bishop of Pittsburgh for 18 years.
Some parishioners signed petitions calling for Wuerl to resign. Catholic schoolteachers made the same demand outside their back-to-school Mass.
Francis has not named a successor yet, and has kept Wuerl on as the acting administrator of the archdiocese.
Immediately after his resignation was confirmed, Wuerl released a list of 31 clergy who had been accused of abuse in the archdiocese over the past 70 years, including three who were members of religious orders serving in archdiocese roles, such as Vasquez.
Vasquez was not on the list, which was released less than two weeks before his abuse was reported to the archdiocese.