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Investigation into Sonoma priest's activity broadens

By James Lanaras, Bay City News Service

July 14, 2006

SANTA ROSA (BCN) - The Sonoma County Sheriff's Department is conducting an investigation to determine when clergy of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa knew about alleged sexual misconduct by one of its priests who is now believed to be in Mexico.

Lt. Dave Edmonds said the county district attorney's office requested the investigation, separate from the one into Ochoa's alleged activities, and report early this week.

The district attorney's office has filed 10 felony charges of lewd acts against a minor against 67-year-old Rev. Francisco Xavier Ochoa of the St. Francis Solano Church in Sonoma. A warrant has been issued for Ochoa's arrest.

It has been alleged that Bishop Daniel Walsh and three priests knew about the alleged misconduct of Ochoa with a 12-year-old boy at least four days before Ochoa disappeared on May 2, but did not immediately report it to authorities as required by state law and church policy.

A Sheriff's Department affidavit states Walsh and the Rev. Frank Epperson met with Ochoa on April 28 when Ochoa admitted his involvement with the boy. The diocese reported its attorney Dan Galvin faxed a letter about Ochoa to the county's Child Protective Services office on May 1. The Sheriff's Department began an investigation on May 3 and when detectives went to Ochoa's apartment on May 4, he was gone.

The sheriff's investigation also identified two other alleged victims who are now adults.

In a letter to parishioners on June 23, Walsh said he placed Ochoa on administrative leave and removed him from his ministries and his ability to function as a priest after Ochoa admitted the incident with the boy and two other previous incidents.

"At all times we have acted in good faith, and I believe with reasonable speed, to notify the authorities of any information that we receive,'' Walsh said.

The bishop said he did not consider Ochoa a flight risk and he is "dismayed by his decision to flee.''

Walsh has been on vacation and has not made any further comment. Members of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, petitioned the district attorney's office last week to investigate the delay and today SNAP welcomed the expanded investigation.

"We believe that others in the church, both volunteers and staff, have information that should be given to law enforcement about the inexcusable delays by Bishop Walsh and the horrific crimes by Father Ochoa.

"Victims may have been intimidated, witnesses threatened and evidence may have been destroyed over the past few weeks. So, it's more important than ever that citizens and Catholics honor their moral and civil duty by speaking up,'' said Mary Grant, SNAP's western regional director.

Edmonds said he couldn't comment on Ochoa's whereabouts or on the new investigation.

Copyright © 2006 by Bay City News, Inc. -- Republication, Rebroadcast or any other Reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.




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