Dominican priest who once served in Germantown charged with child abuse
Tuesday, July 08, 2008 10:04 AM
A Dominican priest who formerly served in the Archdiocese of Washington was charged last week with a single count of custodial child abuse that allegedly occurred in 2001 when he ministered part-time at Mother Seton Parish in Germantown.
Sexual misconduct in Texas alleged against order priest who taught here
By Richard Szczepanowski
A priest of the Order of the Most Holy Trinity (Trinitarians) who taught at DeMatha High School in Hyattsville and who assisted at Masses at St. Mark's Parish in Hyattsville, has been accused of sexual misconduct that allegedly occurred more than 25 years ago in Texas.
The allegation against Trinitarian Father Lawrence Hernandez, "would have occurred more than 25 years ago when he worked as a priest in the Archdiocese of San Antonio and prior to his entry into the Trinitarians and his teaching at DeMatha Catholic High School," said a statement issued by the Order of the most Holy Trinity.
According to the Trinitarians, officials of the Archdiocese of San Antonio reported the allegation to the civil authorities in Texas.
"Immediately upon receiving the allegation, the Trinitarians placed him on administrative leave and the Archdiocese of Washington withdrew his faculties to function as a priest," said Msgr. Barry C. Knestout, archdiocesan moderator of the curia and vicar for administration, said in a letter read at all Masses last weekend at St. Mark's Parish. "This is the only allegation against Father Lawrence. No charges have been filed."
The statement from the Trinitarians stressed that "in accord with the policies and procedures of the Trinitarians' Code of Conduct, Father Lawrence has been placed on administrative leave and his faculties to perform public priestly ministry have been suspended, pending investigation of the allegation."
The order also said that "until learning of the allegations, neither the Trinitarians nor DeMatha administrators were aware of any misconduct by Father Lawrence. He has denied any wrongdoing during his tenure at DeMatha."
Msgr. Knestout, in his letter, called on the faithful to pray for those affected by Father Hernandez's actions, and said that the archdioceses "is committed to doing all we can to ensure that the young people in our care and our broader community are safe from harm."
"Anyone with knowledge of improper conduct involving Father Lawrence should contact the civil authorities and the Trinitarians at 410-294-9673," Father Knestout said. "Anyone with knowledge of improper conduct involving any archdiocesan representative is asked to call Marcia Zvara, archdiocesan director of child protection services, at 301-853-5328."
Montgomery County Police charged Dominican Father Aaron Joseph "A.J." Cote, 56, last week in an incident that involves a now 21-year-old Germantown man. The man, who was 14 years old when the alleged incident occurred, was an altar server at the parish from 1999 to 2002.
"Our hearts go out to the young man and his family, and to all affected. The charge relates to an allegation received by the archdiocese in 2003 that was immediately reported to the authorities and the Dominican Order," said Susan Gibbs, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Washington. "At the time, Cote was no longer serving in the archdiocese. The archdiocese also put the victim in touch with police, immediately offered assistance and to meet with him and his family, and offered its full support in the investigation."
According to Gibbs, the victim filed a civil lawsuit against the Dominican Order and the archdiocese in 2005. She said the Archdiocese of Washington subsequently was released of any liability by the victim. There was no evidence of negligence by the archdiocese and the archdiocese was not part of a financial settlement between the victim and the Dominicans.
"The Archdiocese of Washington did not have any knowledge of any prior wrongdoing by Cote before accepting him for ministry and sought and received written certification from the provincial superior of the Dominicans that there was nothing in Cote's background that would render him unsuitable to work with children," Gibbs said. "The archdiocese also sought and received a similar letter from the Diocese of Springfield where Cote had worked for four years."
The Catholic News Service reported that a civil abuse case filed against the priest and the Dominicans' New York-based province was settled in 2007 for a reported $1.2 million.
Cote, a resident of New York City, turned himself into Maryland police July 1, was arraigned July 2 and released on $250,000 bond, said Lucille Baur, a public information officer for Montgomery County police.
Archbishop Donald Wuerl, in a letter read at all Masses last weekend at Mother Seton Parish, assured parishioners there that "when we received this report, our staff immediately reported the allegation to the authorities and offered full cooperation with their investigation. In addition, the Archdiocese reported the matter to the Dominican Order as well as offered support to the young man and his family and offered to meet personally with them. All of these actions were in fulfillment of our Child Protection Policy, which has been in place for over 20 years."
The policy Archbishop Wuerl referred to is a written child protection policy -- considered one of the most comprehensive in the nation -- that has been in effect in this archdiocese since 1986. In addition to regularly updating the policy, the archdiocese also has a Child Protection Advisory board. Marcia Zvara serves as director of the archdiocese's Office of Child Protection.
According to Gibbs, Cote worked at two parishes part-time in the archdiocese: Mother Seton Parish in Germantown, from 1999 to 2002 and St. Jane Frances de Chantal Parish in Bethesda, from 1997 to 1999.
"We ask that anyone who may have been abused to contact the Archdiocese of Washing-ton's Director of Child Protection Services at 301-853-5328 and the Montgomery County Police Family Crimes Division at 240-773-5400 so the person may be held accountable and we may provide assistance," Gibbs said.
The Catholic News Service also reported July 7 that the attorney who represented the Germantown victim in the civil case has filed another civil suit against Cote and the Dominicans on behalf of the other two boys, who are brothers from Springfield, Mass. In that case a mother claims her two young sons were molested by Cote in 2003.