Concerned Catholics at two parishes in Hanford, Immaculate Heart and St. Brigid, want Bp. Armando Ochoa of Fresno to stop reassigning Fr. Jean-Michael Lastiri and covering up his history, which includes:
To this end, the group has launched a new website called ChurchPurify.com in collaboration with another site, The Roman Catholic Faithful (RCF). This latter website has a remarkable history of reporting on clerical sex abuse for decades.
The so-called "Hanford group," encompassing parishioners of both local parishes, is taking their cue from Bp. Ochoa, who in August wrote, "One of my greatest concerns is the culture of secrecy that exists in many dioceses among the clergy and even among some of the laity who feel that they need to protect the Church at all costs. ... To remain silent and abandon victims when they need their faith community the most is indefensible."
A spokesman for the group told Church Militant that after submitting the information to the diocese, videos posted on Lastiri's YouTube channel began to disappear. Many of the videos contained homosexual content. The group, however, had copied the videos prior to sharing them with the diocese.
According to multiple sources, the diocese has a pattern of destroying such evidence. The online clerical sex abuse tracker RCF, also noted that evidence concerning Lastiri's profile with which he'd reportedly solicited sex on multiple occasions had also been deleted. This information had also been backed up, however, prior to it being deleted. These instances of covering up the facts surrounding Lastiri have made the Hanford group all the more adamant about posting the sensitive information securely online via ChurchPurify.com.
The fact that evidence implicating Lastiri was destroyed along with Lastiri's reported claims of being "soulmates" with the bishop have left the parishioners feeling that there's little hope the diocese will conduct a meaningful investigation or ever take action against Lastiri. To the contrary, the group mentions how Bp. Ochoa keeps Lastiri on as director of liturgy in the diocese.
In their response to Church Militant, the diocese further emphasized that a "victim-survivor" had been mentioned by the Hanford group. A spokesman for the group explained that they were speaking of a "child that was molested by somebody who was intimately involved with Fr. Lastiri."
The person the group reports as being "intimately involved" with Lastiri was Joe Banuelos, a convicted felon, who was hired by Lastiri as his secretary. While in this relationship, Banuelos was convicted in 1991 of kidnapping and sexual abuse of a minor. The group further notes investigators believed Lastiri and Banuelos during this time period "were in a homosexual relationship."
A third well-respected website to contain information on Lastiri is BishopAccountability.org. The online source recounts that Lastri was sent in 2004 by Ochoa's predecessor, Bp. John Steinbock, to the clerical treatment center in Maryland, St. Luke's Institute, after parishioners at St. Patrick's Church in Merced discovered that Fr. Lastiri was frequenting a homosexual website and soliciting liaisons. The bishop noted at the time that Lastiri's behavior was "compulsive and addictive."
When parishioners at St. Philip the Apostle parish in Bakersfield protested in 2005 Steinbock's attempted placement of Lastiri at their church, the bishop told them Lastiri's addiction only involved addiction "to the fantasy world of the internet and to the spending of money." This latter reference is to the $60,000 that Lastiri took from the parish for personal expenses.
In a bulletin last month to parishioners of Immaculate Heart Parish, Lastiri implicated the pastor at St. Brigid in having knowledge of the group's activities to derail his transfer there. The group denied this allegation.
"The pastor at St. Brigid," said the group's spokesman, "had no knowledge of anything that was going on and did not collaborate in any way to help or encourage them."
Lastiri, in his bulletin, also denied any wrongdoing.
"The lies and accusations are beyond belief, and not true," he said.
He points out that one main concern people have about him is his ability to be a good role model for the youth.
"Imagine me hearing that I may not be a good model for the children, after all these years," Lastiri said.
The Hanford group, however, maintains that Lastiri's persistent behavior is not in step with his vocation and he should be thoroughly investigated with nothing swept under the rug, as seemingly has happened for many years.
"We don't want to wait until another child or victim arises before we do something about it," said the group's spokesman. "With the past cover-ups, the ongoing intolerable acts and now recently finding more material online, that is enough for us to answer our bishop's call to purify the Church."