An alleged clergy sex-abuse coverup case unfolding this week at one of the Washington region’s most prominent Latino parishes is putting a spotlight on a segment of the Catholic Church seen as uniquely opaque when it comes to misconduct: religious orders.
Three parish leaders at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart, a bustling, heavily Salvadoran church in Columbia Heights, were removed this week following reports that three teenage girls were groped or kissed by the Rev. Urbano Vazquez, a gregarious and popular priest.
The arrest and child sex-abuse charge against Vazquez and removal of the lead priest and the chief child-protection coordinator have stunned Sacred Heart parishioners, with many circling the church protectively or taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the charges. Sacred Heart is large and central to the area’s Hispanic community, with many ministries — a school, English literacy classes and an immigration resource center, among other services.
“Maybe it wouldn’t have had such an impact if it had been in a different church,” Carlos Enrique, 53, a longtime parishioner, said Thursday evening. Parish leaders informed the congregation of the scandal via an email Wednesday, describing it as “upsetting news.”
“I don’t go for the priests, I go for Christ. … Whatever happens, I won’t leave,” Enrique said.
Vazquez, an assistant priest, and the Rev. Moises Villalta, the parish’s lead priest, are Capuchins, an order, or religious community, within the Catholic Church. The Capuchins staff Sacred Heart, which is owned and operated by the Archdiocese of Washington. While the archdiocese can remove the order’s priests from its own institutions if problems come to its attention, it does not otherwise manage them or participate in disciplinary action.
Questions linger as to whether the Capuchins' independent leadership of the church played a role in the parish’s mishandling of the allegations against Vazquez. (Vazquez could not be reached, and his public defender declined comment. Villalta also could not be reached for comment.)
The email the parish sent to congregants said Villalta and Sonia Marlene Aquino, the child-protection coordinator, “did not follow the correct reporting protocol.” A police report Thursday said parents of at least two of the three girls had reported the abuse to parish leadership as early as 2015, but it had not been reported to civil authorities or the archdiocese until late last month. It is unclear why the allegations resurfaced.
Advocates for survivors and experts on church governance said lack of transparency is a major problem with religious orders, all of which are run separately and independently from dioceses and archdioceses.
Victims groups wrote just this week to Callista Gingrich, the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, urging her to press U.S. bishops on various abuse topics, including the lack of transparency of religious orders, such as the Capuchins, Jesuits, Dominicans and Crosiers.
And on Oct. 26, amid the mounting national pressure on the church around transparency, the major umbrella group for male orders — the Conference of Major Superiors of Men — wrote to its dozens of member groups to encourage them to release the names of priests who have faced credible allegations of sexual abuse of minors and to alert local bishops where accused men have lived.
Peter Isley, a survivor of abuse by a Capuchin who is now a spokesman for the global group Ending Clergy Abuse, said his group and other survivor groups wrote to Gingrich as part of a long-term effort to bring more accountability to the orders.
Isley said leaders of religious orders disagree about whether they are required to follow the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, the key document passed by the U.S. bishops in 2002 that governs bishops' procedures around abuse. The charter requires, among other things, dioceses to report allegations of abuse and to file reports on a variety of preventive measures.
“Some say yes; some say no,” Isley said. He and other abuse-prevention advocates said orders permanently remove from ministry, or laicize, accused priests much less frequently than dioceses. Orders are also organized into regional provinces that span states and sometimes national borders, while dioceses (and archdioceses) are within U.S. states, which can make it harder for civil officials to keep track of accused individuals.
Of about 48,500 priests nationwide, about 31 percent are from religious orders, and the other 69 percent are from dioceses, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a research center about church life, at Georgetown University.
The fact that Sacred Heart was run by a religious order hasn’t been raised formally as an issue by parishioners or anyone in the archdiocese. However the case is the first new claim of abuse within an archdiocesan parish in almost 20 years, and the D.C. archdiocese has been at the center of an explosion of concern about clergy child abuse since the suspension in June of former Washington archbishop Theodore McCarrick, an accused abuser who has since resigned from the College of Cardinals, and the stepping down last month of his successor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, over allegations that he mishandled abuse complaints while he was bishop in Pittsburgh. To have a new allegation of abuse and coverup is a blow to an archdiocese trying to shore up its reputation.
The Rev. Tom Betz, provincial — or regional leader — for Vazquez’s region, said in a statement Friday night that Capuchins receive regular training to prevent abuse and are accredited by Praesidium, an independent firm that consults and assesses abuse-prevention programs.
“Obviously our procedures for the protection of minors failed and we must now redouble our efforts to train our friars and improve our procedures,” Betz said in a statement.
The archdiocese, when asked about the oversight of the order-staffed parish, said Sacred Heart “receives the same, full support and engagement as the other parishes of the archdiocese,” spokeswoman Chieko Noguchi wrote in an email. But while the archdiocese had the power to remove the priests from the parish itself, she wrote, “beyond that, regarding discipline for the Capuchins, that’s a question to ask the religious order.”
The removal of the two men appears to cut in half the full-time clerical staff at Sacred Heart. The archdiocese will send staff to the parish Sunday and offer resources to the families of the survivors. The parish planned a prayer vigil Friday in response to the arrest.
Parishioners said they were stunned at the scandal unfolding at the church.
The parish’s priests are “the pillars of the parish … the voice of the community, the face of the community,” Gilber Canales said Thursday night outside Mass. They are vocal advocates on immigration issues, both in their homilies and in attending community marches and rallies protesting the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown.
Canales, 38, who has been a member of the church for 22 years, was married in the church, and his daughter was baptized there. He teaches Catechism classes to children and lives nearby. “It’s like a bucket of cold water,” he said. “It’s chilling. … We didn’t know anything.”
He was used to hearing about the ongoing sex-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church worldwide, but he never thought it would hit his own community. “It’s like we’re in the eye of the hurricane.”
Some said the reports could have been made as a result a series of listening sessions held in the archdiocese this summer and fall about the crisis.
Katlyn Toelle said the community has prayed for victims of sexual abuse at Mass every week since an explosive grand jury report came out of Pennsylvania this summer. They pray “for those survivors of abuse, whether by power or violence, especially by the clergy who have not lived up to their call to holiness,” Toelle said in an email. Toelle, who coordinates music for the English-speaking Mass, said Sacred Heart is a warm and welcoming parish that openly discusses difficult issues and tries to fight injustice.
“We have been harmed and we have been deceived, but we will not be defined by it,” Toelle said.
At Mass on Thursday night, a new priest read in Spanish from the day’s Gospel, about the Parable of the Lost Sheep. He didn’t mention the scandal.
“With human weakness, we can fail … we can become dirty with sin. … But Jesus Christ is looking for each of us. Why? To heal us," the priest said later during the homily.
Many parishioners voiced a desire to protect the parish and declined to comment on the abuse allegations.
Outside, Marco Antonio, 50, a parishioner for 13 years, questioned the intentions and credibility of the accusations, claiming the families “want to take advantage of the situation.”
“The truth is, here the Hispanic community is very friendly,” he said, saying that kissing and hugging are common forms of affection.
But Canelas didn’t dismiss the allegations outright. He placed the blame on Villalta for not reporting the allegations sooner. “If this happened, why did they wait?”
Vazquez had been at the parish since 2014. He was born in 1972 in Mexico, and made his first vows to the Capuchins in 2003. He studied in Washington while living in a Capuchin community, and recieved a Masters of Divinity from the Centro de Estudios de los Dominicos de Caribe in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
He was ordained as a deacon in Puerto Rico in 2013 and served as a deacon-intern for a year at Our Lady of the Mountains Parish in Cumberland, Md., before going to Sacred Heart.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore said there were no complaints to the archdiocese about Vazquez during the year at Our Lady, and Noguchi said there were no allegations against Vazquez made to the D.C. archdiocese until last month.
Religious order priests like Vazquez have “a completely different way of life” in terms of the willingness of the institution to remove or discipline them compared with dioceses, said Patrick Wall, a canon lawyer and former priest who became a researcher and watchdog against clergy abuse.
Of the handling of sex abuse by clergy within Catholic orders, Wall said, “This is a long-standing problem the bishops have never solved.”