STOCKTON – An ex-priest is reportedly hosting private, religious gatherings despite his dismissed status, the Diocese of Stockton warns.
The former priest in question is Leo Suarez, who was ousted from the church back in 2010 and formally laicized in 2016. The diocese says he is not allowed to perform any priestly ministry in the diocese or elsewhere.
Wednesday diocese officials told CBS13 they obtained proof through photographic evidence that Suarez has been celebrating Masses and quinceañeras in Diocese of Stockton halls as well as private homes and event spaces.
That evidence was not provided to CBS13 as the diocese wished to protect its sources and the parishioners participating.
"The Christian faithful are advised not to participate in these events or any ministry outside the parish church, even if performed by a priest once ordained for the Diocese of Stockton, because it ruptures their community with the Catholic Church and may, in some circumstances, result in the invalid administration of a sacrament," the statement from Bishop Myron J. Cotta reads.
Suarez spent more than two decades serving at Catholic Churches in the San Joaquin Valley before accusations of sexual abuse came to light.
"We understand that perhaps some of these events were happening in people's private homes so obviously we want to do the right thing, we want to be transparent," said spokesperson for the Stockton Diocese, Erin Haight.
Haight says while the exact number of occurrences of illegitimate gatherings hosted by Suarez is unknown their understanding is it has happened on a regular basis for at least the past few months.
"We are not here to judge but we certainly want to protect our faithful from participating in illegitimate or invalid services. We don't want people to inadvertently or unknowingly invalidate their communion," said Haight.
Suarez is listed on the Diocese of Stockton's website as a priest facing credible accusations of sexually abusing a minor.
He self-reported the abuse in 2009, he was officially dismissed from clerical state in 2016, but the news broke in 2010 about the accusations. It was then he was removed from his position as associate pastor at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Modesto.
The alleged abuse happened when he was Associate Pastor at St. Anthony's Church, Hughson in the timeframe of 1988-1991.
There is another report of abuse in 2014, it is unclear if it pertains to the same victim.
"My main concern is what has he been doing from 2010 to the present? Who has been monitoring his actions, his behavior?" asked Dorothy Small.
Small is an advocate with the Survivor's Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and a victim herself.
"If this priest is having contact in the community in private homes where children are around this really is red flag behavior," said Small. "He was banned from being a priest, banned form ministry yet he still wants to perform ministerial duties. Which still puts him in a position of power and authority, even if its out of the observation of the church."
She says from her own religious experience, often times the mindset is "once a priest, always a priest" and authority is to be revered.
"People don't want to feel foolish or stupid or like they believed in something that wasn't real. It's human nature to sit there and say, this did not affect me personally," said Small.
Suarez was never charged with a crime. His self-reported sexual abuse of a minor happened 20 years prior, and a victim never came forward.
His alleged admission of sexual abuse is not mentioned in the Diocese warning to the community about his recent private religious gatherings; but Haight told CBS13 it factored into their concern.
"Bishop Cotta wants to be transparent and wants to be honest. That certainly had part to do with this. We understand and we want to protect our people. Bottom line," said Haight.
She says regardless of the past abuse a warning still would have been issued to the public about the invalid ceremonies.
CBS13's attempts to find a current contact for Suarez for comment on this story Thursday were unsuccessful.
His actions are not illegal, as every citizen has a right to religious freedom and expression. The Stockton Diocese says it has issued a precept for Suarez to stop performing any and all priestly ministry; beyond this, there is little it can do to stop illegitimate celebrations aside from encouraging their faithful community to be aware and contact them with concerns.
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