October 27, 2005

Priests behaving badly

Telegram & Gazette

Dianne Williamson


Unfortunately for the Rev. James J. Aquino, what happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas.

But what did happen in Vegas, and why should we care? Well, for starters, priests shouldn’t hide behind bishops and lawyers, bishops shouldn’t condone in private the same conduct they condemn in public, and the Catholic Church really should get its story straight when it comes to bad behavior.

If you believe Rev. Aquino’s extraordinary performance from the pulpit Monday night — remarkably, most of his parishioners seem to — he was an innocent victim of rogue Las Vegas cops who targeted him because he was a priest.

“When they saw my license and saw I was a priest, they asked me if I was Catholic and I said, ‘Yes, I was,’ and that’s when the nightmare began,” he told hundreds of transfixed parishioners at Our Lady of Loreto Church.

If you believe Las Vegas vice squad detectives — unremarkably, the Nevada court seemed to — he was seen masturbating another man for approximately 30 minutes in a pornographic movie theater last October.

“He essentially got caught up in a raid,” said Las Vegas Police Sgt. Chris Jones. “For a person in his position to be caught doing what he did is very embarrassing, so he’s displacing blame. For him to suggest he was targeted is ridiculous. He was caught red-handed. It’s not like we’re hard-pressed in Vegas for business when it comes to this stuff.”

Rev. Aquino asked his flock for forgiveness Monday night but spent most of his hastily arranged mea culpa blaming others, offering bizarre excuses and professing his innocence to adoring parishioners who accepted his account without question, perhaps because they’re weary of scandal or secretly relieved that no children were involved.

I suppose you can’t blame them, but it’s downright weird the way some Catholics continue to drink the Kool-Aid and swallow the hypocrisy of the church hierarchy. Why a standing ovation for a priest accused of providing a hand job in a public place, a priest who, despite supporters’ praise for his “courage” in speaking out, only came forward when the story was all over the Internet and about to break in the local press?

Rev. Aquino was vacationing in Vegas last fall with his friend, Monsignor Louis P. Piermarini, when he told parishioners that he “wasn’t particularly feeling well one day” and went for a “very long” walk. As it happened, he ended up miles away in a “Super Store” with triple Xs in the window and porn inside. Minutes later, according to Rev. Aquino, he was confronted by two undercover vice squad detectives who, much to his surprise, said he was being detained.

Missing from that account was that Rev. Aquino apparently paid $8 to enter a theater in the Super Store where pornographic movies are shown. Also missing is the fact that he gave a false Social Security number to police before eventually producing a driver’s license from his shoe, according to the authorities’ report.

Despite paperwork that clearly shows he bargained the charge of lewd conduct to a lesser offense and was ordered to perform community service and notify his bishop before the charges were dismissed 11 months later, Rev. Aquino and his lawyer spun a ludicrous account that a judge found him innocent.

“Because I was a priest, I had to prove my innocence,” Rev. Aquino said. He then surrendered the microphone to his lawyer, Anthony A. Froio, who downplayed the charges as “just a citation … it had nothing to do with a minor. It sort of looks like a traffic citation, just a flimsy piece of paper you can hardly read.”

Sgt. Jones said the “flimsy” citation was a courtesy extended to Rev. Aquino, who faced arrest for the charges.

“We actually cut him a break,” the sergeant said. “We felt because of who he was and the nonviolent nature of the offense, rather than take him to jail we’d extend him a courtesy.”

This week, a spokesman for Bishop Robert J. McManus said the bishop is taking the matter “very seriously.” Monday night, however, Rev. Aquino’s lawyer said the bishop “has been very supportive” of the priest and “hasn’t seen fit” to discipline him in any way.

The bishop had also seen fit to sweep the charges under the rug, just as the Vatican deems that men who publicly show their homosexuality and reveal an attraction to the gay lifestyle should be refused admission to the clergy. I don’t know how much more public you can get than masturbating another man in a movie theater, but maybe the bishop has adopted a Clintonian view of sex. Or perhaps he’s had his hands full in the town of Westboro, where he swooped unannounced into St. Luke’s Catholic Church last month and took over the Mass after the priests of the parish stated publicly that they don’t support efforts to ban gay marriage.

I guess a bishop must set his own priorities, but it’s awfully sad that he enables one of his priests to dupe loyal parishioners from the pulpit, but comes down quickly on other priests who speak their conscience. And once again, the church continues to fault “clergy hate groups” for “spreading false accusations,” Rev. Aquino told his parishioners.

In Las Vegas, meanwhile, Sgt. Jones said he’s angry that Rev. Aquino is shifting the blame for his behavior onto police.

“This priest clearly knows what he’s done,” said Sgt. Jones. “But rather than answer for it, he’s trying to push the blame on officers who are doing their jobs. His parishioners are obviously good people and want to believe him, but I’d urge them to step back, try to be a little objective and look at the facts. If they still believe him, well, I have to shake my head at that.”

Contact Dianne Williamson by e-mail at dwilliamson@telegram.com.

Posted by kshaw at October 27, 2005 09:01 AM