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HOUSTON (ChurchMilitant.com) - Police have raided the chancery of the Galveston-Houston archdiocese for evidence about a priest charged with sexually abusing minors.
Several law enforcement agencies showed up at the archdiocese's offices in downtown Houston around 10 a.m. Wednesday morning to comb through the "secret archives" — the confidential documents that every diocese keeps about its personnel.
Authorities are looking for documents related to Fr. Manuel La Rosa-Lopez, a priest of the archdiocese who was arrested in September on charges of sexually abusing minors. Father La Rosa-Lopez was accused of sexually abusing two teenagers — one boy and one girl — between 1998 and 2001. La Rosa-Lopez was released from jail on bond. His next court appearance is scheduled for January.
The head of the Galveston-Houston archdiocese is Cdl. Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Cardinal DiNardo recently made headlines when a statement from the archdiocese claimed reports by CBS News were "inaccurate." The reports addressed two priests in active ministry in the archdiocese who were accused of sex abuse. The archdiocese stated on Nov. 21 that the independent lay review board who heard the allegations recommended both priests should stay in ministry. The archdiocese also claims that officials gave responses to 30 questions posed by CBS, but the responses were left out of the coverage.
The district attorney's office from nearby Montgomery County, the Conroe Police Department (Conroe is where the alleged abuse happened) and the Texas Rangers all took part in the raid. Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon said at a press conference Wednesday that "federal agencies" were at the scene as well.
Speaking to reporters outside the archdiocese's offices, the Republican district attorney said the Rangers and the federal agencies were there in case they uncovered evidence for crimes outside of Montgomery County.
"Our investigation is focused on 'Fr. Manny,''' Ligon said. "Anywhere it goes after that, we'd turn over to the Texas Rangers or we'd turn over to the appropriate federal agency."
He later said the federal agencies present for the raid would remain "unnamed."
Church Militant heard from a source in the archdiocese that the chancery was essentially put on full lockdown Wednesday, and no one could get in or out.
One reporter on the scene of the police search at the chancery estimated that nearly 50 law enforcement officials were present.
The Galveston-Houston archdiocese encompasses 10 counties in southeastern Texas. The city of Conroe in Montgomery County is where the alleged crimes took place, but the archdiocese's offices are in downtown Houston in Harris County. Ligon explained, "Harris County happens to be where my investigation led me. If it led me to Rome, we'd be at the Vatican today."
He would later repeat that if the investigation ever leads to the Vatican, he will go to Rome.
At one point, he mentioned a "secret vault." He explained this was referring to the secret archives that every diocese keeps, in accord with canon law.
"The Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office," Ligon added, "has been very helpful, and kind of helping us structure some of what we're looking for."
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro oversaw the Pennsylvania grand jury report, which came out this summer. The extensive report listed sexual abuse allegations against 301 Catholic priests and religious across six of Pennsylvania's eight Catholic dioceses. The other two dioceses in the state were subject to similar investigations in years prior.
Ligon told reporters, "Whether it's a search warrant at the Shalom Center, whether it's a search warrant in Fort Bend County at the Catholic Church there or at my home church, Sacred Heart in Conroe, we're going to wherever the investigation requires us to go."
Sacred Heart Church in Conroe is where Fr. La Rosa-Lopez was assigned in the late 1990s and early 2000s when he allegedly abused two teens. It is also the parish where Ligon and his wife were married.
Ligon remarked on the timing of this raid, given the upcoming "holiday season." He noted, "The patron saint of children is St. Nicholas. And I think that it's just kind of apropos that in this holiday season, St. Nicholas is also known as Santa Claus. Well Santa Claus is here to tell you that the state of Texas will go to any length necessary to protect children."
A reporter asked Ligon what he would want to say to victims of clerical sex abuse who are worried that there might be a cover-up. Ligon noted, "I have done four search warrants. Starting in Fort Bend County; the Shalom Center in Montgomery County; Sacred Heart; and now I'm here. If there's something to be covered up, I'm sure I'll find it."
"People cooperate," Ligon explained, because "there are so many lay Catholics out there that are ready for the Church to come clean. And I am a lay Catholic myself, but today I stand here as the district attorney of Montgomery County."
He claimed, "This is not a shot at Catholic parishioners, and this is not a shot at the Catholic Church. This is an investigation into a Catholic priest who was employed by the Catholic Church, and this church happens to be holding those records."
Ligon said at another point, "I am a Catholic myself. And so this is not a search warrant against the Catholic Church. What this is is a search warrant to review files that belong to a defendant."
The district attorney explained that law enforcement is treating this search the same way they would treat searching through files at a bank or other business.
Tyler Dunman of the Montgomery County district attorney's office wrote of Wednesday's search, "We will take any document or piece of information related to Fr. Manuel La Rosa-Lopez or involving any other criminal activity."
This is the fourth search warrant that authorities have executed in relation to the case against Fr. La Rosa-Lopez.
The Galveston-Houston archdiocese put out a statement Wednesday about the execution of the search warrant. The archdiocese claims that it should not be called a "raid," arguing that "any use of the term 'raid' is an inaccurate and unprofessional reference to a request for records to a party that has been cooperating and will continue to cooperate fully."
Ligon agreed with this sentiment, telling reporters Wednesday, "I think that the term 'raid' is inaccurate. This is a lawfully executed search warrant."
The district attorney noted the archdiocese did not hand over boxes of documents to law enforcement on day one, and that prosecutors had to work with "a host of attorneys." He commented, "Having to go through the attorneys, I understand it, as an attorney myself. It's not the type of cooperation that I would hope for, but it's the type of cooperation that I would expect with a sophisticated company."
At another point during the press scrum, Ligon said some archdiocesan personnel are certainly being cooperative, but it is possible others are working behind the scenes to hide evidence. "For example," he explained, "if Cdl. DiNardo is cooperative, that doesn't mean the people that work with Cdl. DiNardo are cooperative. It doesn't mean that they're going to tell him the truth. And so it very well may be in a position where he wants to give us documents but he doesn't know that they exist."
Ligon went on to say, "And the good thing is I've taken the burden off of everybody in the Catholic Church 'cause they don't have to know anything. I'm going to find it all out."
One journalist asked the district attorney if there were plans to seize office computers. He responded, "We've been known to in the past. We've been known to take computers, cables, hopes, dreams, whatever it takes that has a bearing on a criminal case. Usually it's when people don't cooperate that we'll take everything, including the cable box, if that's what's necessary."
He noted it depends on the situation, especially the level of cooperation, adding, "I don't want to tie myself down as to what we're doing inside today."