LAS CRUCES – Las Cruces Bishop Oscar Cantú on Wednesday disputed allegations that the diocese conspired to cover up an investigation involving a Hobbs priest who has been charged with sexually assaulting a man. The bishop also maintained that diocesan officials did not receive complaints from Las Cruces parishioners over an eight-year period when the accused priest was at St. Genevieve Catholic Church.
Cantú spoke candidly about what he did — and didn’t do — when he learned about sexual abuse allegations involving Father Ricardo Bauza last year.
In October 2017, Hobbs police charged Bauza, 51, the former pastor at St. Genevieve who was relocated to Hobbs in 2014 to serve as the pastor of St. Helena Catholic Church, with one misdemeanor count of criminal sexual contact following an investigation into allegations that Bauza sexually assaulted an adult male in the rectory shower at St. Helena in 2016.
A criminal complaint alleges Bauza allowed the man to shower in the rectory. As the man was showering, Bauza allegedly entered the shower without clothing and began washing the man’s body, including his genital area, according to the complaint. A second, similar incident occurred about a week later, the complaint alleges.
The allegations later became the basis of a civil lawsuit against Bauza and the diocese that was filed in February by the victim in the criminal case. The lawsuit alleges, among other claims, that church officials aided Bauza when the criminal allegations surfaced and helped him flee prosecution. It also accuses Bauza of sexual battery.
In February, Bauza surrendered to authorities in Hobbs about a week after the lawsuit had been filed in 3rd Judicial District Court in Las Cruces, and more than three months after Hobbs police obtained a warrant for his arrest.
On Wednesday, Cantú disputed some of the most egregious allegations in the lawsuit, and said he sought to “clarify misinformation.” He asserted that Bauza had no history of abuse while he served as the pastor of St. Genevieve, the only Las Cruces church he oversaw for the diocese.
“I had received no — in my five years in the diocese — no complaints (about Bauza),” he said. “As a matter of fact,” he added, “I reviewed his file last week, and there was not a single complaint. In fact, there were several positive letters written on his behalf.”
Cantú said he relocated Bauza to Hobbs in 2014 because Bauza had completed his assignment at St. Genevieve, and St. Helena was in need of a pastor. The reassignment had nothing to do with abuse or misconduct allegations, Cantú said. Ordained by the diocese in 2006, Bauza’s first assignment was at St. Genevieve. Cantú said priest terms run about six years on average.
Allegations of sexual abuse involving Bauza first reached Cantú in May 2017, he said.
The victim had confided in two brothers, both employees at St. Helena, telling them about the alleged shower incident. The brothers took the allegations to the diocese and eventually spoke with Cantú. (The brothers would later claim they were fired by diocese in retaliation for reporting the allegations; one was fired for an unrelated reason, and the other remains on paid administrative leave, according to Cantú.)
“One of my first concerns was whether there were any minors involved,” Cantú said.
No minors were involved, but that was of little consolation, Cantú said.
“I assured them that I would act on it and I would investigate it,” he said.
However, it took Cantú until that July to address the allegations in a face-to-face meeting with Bauza, he said. That was because Cantú said he had several travel commitments that he was unable to cancel or reschedule, and then he became ill after visiting Cuba. He insisted that the brothers and the victim were aware of his travel plans and that he wasn’t available to address their complaint for several weeks.
Cantú also pointed out Wednesday that the brothers and the victim were free to report the allegations to police, which they did in August 2017, according to court records. Neither Cantú nor any other diocesan official ever reported the allegations to police — something Cantú said he regrets. He and other administrators are currently reviewing their action, or inaction, related to the Bauza case, he said.
“I’ve never had to this,” Cantú said of the ordeal.
When asked if he would have done anything differently, Cantú said, “I probably would have alerted the authorities early on.”
Following the July meeting, the diocese sent Bauza to a Houston-area treatment center, Cantú said. He didn’t clarify what kind of treatment center. Bauza remained at the center until January.
While Bauza was at the facility, Hobbs police, in October, filed the criminal complaint against him and obtained a warrant for his arrest. The following month, Bauza’s criminal charges made headlines.
Cantú said he first learned of the criminal charges against Bauza sometime after they were made public in news reports. Then, in either late November or early December, a deacon serving as general counsel for the diocese reached out to Hobbs police, Cantú said, informing officials about Bauza’s whereabouts in Texas.
Cantú claimed police were not in a hurry to arrest Bauza, insisting that if there had been a rush, the diocese would have made arrangements to transport Bauza to Hobbs.
In February, after completing the treatment program, Bauza voluntarily surrendered to Hobbs police. He was released from jail the same day on an unsecured $2,000 bond, court records show. A week earlier, an attorney representing the unnamed victim filed the civil lawsuit against Bauza and the diocese.
The diocese and Bauza have each asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit. A pretrial conference has been scheduled for November, followed by a docket call in December, both before Judge Manuel Arrieta. A trial date has not been scheduled.
Meanwhile, Bauza’s defense attorney in the criminal case is slated to conduct witness interviews with the victim and one of the brothers on Friday at the Hobbs District Attorney’s Office, according to a court filing. Bauza has pleaded not guilty to the charge; no trial date has been scheduled.
Cantú said Wednesday he is working on ways to improve protocols and procedures to prevent a similar situation and better safeguard parishioners. This would include continuing mandatory safe environment training for any staff or volunteer who may have contact with children.
Additionally, Cantú plans to give priests access to a psychologist during an annual spring gathering. He also plans to install an “elder priest” whose sole job would be to travel throughout the diocese, ministering and checking in on priests.
The elder priest would report to Cantú but would keep his conversations with priests private. Cantú also said he is reviewing the diocese’s policy on rectories.
Cantú said he is in regular contact with Bauza, who is not allowed to minister at this time. Cantú said he is waiting until the criminal and civil cases are wrapped up to determine Bauza’s future with the diocese. But Bauza remains “incardinated” in the diocese, which is different from being a standard employee, Cantú said.
“With an incardinated priest, it’s more on the realm of a family,” he said. “You can’t fire your dad or brother. You may not want to have contact with them … He belongs to us.”
Carlos Andres Lopez can be reached at 575-541-5453, firstname.lastname@example.org or @carlopez_los on Twitter.
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