Parish Predators

Oh, could he sing.

At St. Francis de Sales, where he sang in choir, they called him Pavarotti. He performed at church concerts and weddings, and even with Houston Grand Opera.

A dark-skinned Costa Rican with a goatee and eyes set widely apart, German Rojas Moreno was everyone's friend. He was a doctor back home, he said. In Houston, he worked at a health clinic where he treated some of the boys who sang in the choir. And, he opened his home to them. It was just an apartment, but it was a boy's dream: big-screen TV, Xbox, pool table. During the school year, they spent weekends there, and in the summer, they were there nearly every day.

According to the boys, who are now men, Moreno was playful, boisterous. He'd jokingly put them in a headlock, challenge them in soccer. The boys, who filed police reports about Moreno, say he tried to show them new games, too, like the one where you masturbate and see who can last the longest. And he always wanted to show them the videos in the closet, the ones with the men, they say.

Around the parents, the good doctor was an adult. A congenial but sober authority figure, he'd shake parents' hands after mass and they'd thank him for doing such a wonderful job with their boys. And he did. At his apartment, the men say, he always made sure they took their vitamins. Tiny, tiny white vitamins. And he made his special frozen drink, ciropa, and it was so good the boys would not remember the rest of the day.

Moreno appeared to have no worries. After leaving Costa Rica in 1994, he had no problem carving out a life for himself in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. Even though he sang in the choir and spent great amounts of time with children, no one at the archdiocese ever did a background check. So they didn't know about his little problem back home. They didn't know he was wanted for sexually abusing five boys who were his "patients." They didn't know he had been sentenced to nine years in prison.

And St. Francis de Sales was an especially good parish for Moreno. At the same time he was there, a young seminarian named Juan Carlos Patino-Arango was spending great amounts of time with boys as well. He saw them in the rectory; he picked them up at their homes and took them for drives. Those boys said he examined their pubic hair and jacked them off. And he told them not to tell. But when one of the boys finally did, in 1996, the parish leaders bought the seminarian a plane ticket back to Colombia. If Moreno ever needed an indication as to how the Galveston-Houston archdiocese and St. Francis de Sales treated child molesters, he now had one.

So he stayed for years, until last May, when he was charged with two counts of indecency with a child, two counts of assault of a child and one count of aggravated sexual assault of a child. Harris County prosecutors had in their hands a fugitive who was accused of abusing more boys here. But if they knew about Moreno's past, they didn't make a good argument that he was a flight risk: Judge Belinda Hill set bail at $60,000. In June, Moreno bonded out and disappeared.

The case of German Moreno reveals a breakdown of accountability among leaders of the Catholic archdiocese, the Harris County district attorney's office, the Harris County Public Health Department and the Texas Department of State Health Services. A breakdown that might have led to the victimization of dozens of boys.

Breakdown I: The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston

When Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza retired from the Galveston-Houston archdiocese earlier this year, he was celebrated for overseeing such a prosperous, influential community.

In 2004, Pope John Paul II elevated the jurisdiction to an archdiocese. At the time, Fiorenza was the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Perhaps most important, his archdiocese had mostly avoided the child abuse scandal that had plagued other dioceses. He would retire with an unquestioned, unblemished record.

In truth, Fiorenza had a tendency to accept troubled clergy into his domains (see the sidebar, "Free Rides," at the end of this story). And as was the case with most dioceses, the Galveston-Houston archdiocese did whatever was necessary to protect the church from public scrutiny. As would any business accused of serious crimes, the archdiocese mounted vigorous defenses, including placing partial blame at the victims' feet. For the media, the tactic was obfuscation.

Since 2002, when the latest wave of allegations rocked the Catholic Church, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has commissioned studies and instituted procedures to weed out predators and be more compassionate to victims. While the Galveston-Houston archdiocese, under Fiorenza, has paid public lip service to these standards, it has outright ignored them when allegations surface.

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Contributor Craig Malisow covers crooks, quacks, animal abusers, elected officials, and other assorted people for the Houston Press.
Contact: Craig Malisow