A Catholic priest and former assistant pastor of a parish in Northwest Washington was sentenced Friday to 15 years in prison for sexually assaulting two girls who were members of his church.
Vazquez, 47, was arrested last year on child abuse charges. Following a nine-day trial in the summer, a jury found Vazquez guilty of groping a 13-year-old girl in 2015 and kissing and groping a 9-year-old girl in 2016. Prosecutors said the incidents happened when Vazquez was serving as an assistant pastor at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in the Columbia Heights neighborhood, where the girls were parishioners.
During the trial, one victim told jurors that she initially kept the incidents a secret from her mother because she feared “something worser would happen,” like rape. Another testified she cried after Vazquez slipped his hand under her bra as she was resting in a church office.
Vazquez was convicted of three counts of second-degree sexual abuse of a child and one count of misdemeanor sex abuse of a child. The jury also agreed with the prosecution that based on the ages of the victims and Vazquez’s leadership role at the church, his penalty should be enhanced.
Prosecutors on Friday asked the judge to sentence Vazquez to 20½ years in prison.
Assistant U.S. Attorney J. Matt Williams said the victims and their families sent letters to the judge before Vazquez’s sentencing that detailed the impact of the assaults. But, Williams said, the victims and their families chose not to attend the hearing.
“They have a fear of being ridiculed by supporters of the defendant,” Williams said. He recalled how, during a break in the trial, one of Vazquez’s supporters called one of the girls who had testified earlier against him “a liar.”
The mother of one victim wrote in a letter to the court that she and her family remain at the church now that it has a new pastor. She said many of the members there isolate her and her family.
Williams referred to Vazquez as a “wolf in priest’s clothing” who used his charm, influence and position to identify, isolate and prey on victims. Williams said that in 2015, when the mothers of two victims approached church officials about Vazquez assaulting their daughters, Vazquez remained in his position at the church. Authorities said he later found other, even younger victims, including the 9-year-old girl.
Still, Vazquez never admitted wrongdoing. “He is dangerously manipulative,” Williams said.
Most apparent at Friday’s sentencing was how the case affected the members of the church, including the victims and their families who still attend.
The current pastor of the church wrote of the “emotional division” within the community.
More than 80 people filled the courtroom, the majority of whom were supporters of Vazquez. About a half-dozen individuals, including Vazquez’s sister and friends, each took a turn to step into the well of the courtroom and spoke of fond memories of life with the priest, each asking the judge for leniency and mercy.
Vazquez did not speak during his sentencing. His attorney said they plan to appeal. But in a nine-page, handwritten letter to the judge, Vazquez again denied the allegations. In the letter, as he did during the trial, he detailed mission trips he took to El Salvador, funerals, weddings, baptisms and confessions he oversaw, as well as visits to hospitals and nursing homes, all between 2014 and 2018. “Your honor, as you can see, I was too busy to do a crazy thing,” he wrote.
During the trial, he took the stand and, over two days, calmly told jurors that he was never alone with any children from the church and that he never inappropriately touched or kissed any children.
But under cross-examination by prosecutors, Vazquez admitted to repeatedly lying to two supervising priests so he could go on a secret vacation to a Mexican resort with a woman. Those lies, Williams said in court Friday, showed how Vazquez used deception to get what he wanted.
Vazquez’s attorney, Robert C. Bonsib, said his client will “no longer be a priest” as a result of the conviction and asked the judge for leniency.
“He wants to serve the helpless, the homeless, the poor and a variety of people who are going through difficult times. He is sincere in his beliefs,” Bonsib said.
Vazquez still faces a misdemeanor sexual assault charge concerning an adult woman. A hearing in that case was scheduled for September.