Church suspected priest it defended
BY JAY WEAVER
When the story broke 16 years ago about a Catholic priest accused of sexually abusing refugee boys, the Archdiocese of Miami denounced it as an ''inquisition'' -- though the church's own records now show its spiritual leader took the allegations dead serious.
Out of the public eye, Archbishop Edward McCarthy had already insisted that the Rev. Ernesto Garcia-Rubio be evaluated for pedophilia, according to investigative records obtained by The Herald.
Six months before the paper's November 1988 story, the archbishop told Garcia-Rubio, then on sabbatical in Colombia, that he shouldn't return to Miami for a visit to celebrate his 25th year in the priesthood.
McCarthy said he was concerned about the priest's ''physical safety'' and ''possible negative publicity'' stemming from his alleged misconduct at the Sweetwater parish where Garcia-Rubio had been pastor.
''I also must insist that following your sabbatical, but prior to your return, you receive a psychiatric evaluation in a setting determined by the archdiocese,'' McCarthy wrote him on May 11, 1988.
''Ernesto, this is as much for your protection as that of the archdiocese,'' said McCarthy, now retired and unavailable for comment because he is in poor health. ``The nature of the complaints definitely warrant the concern I am manifesting.''
The complaints -- first lodged privately by some parishioners at Our Lady of Divine Providence -- eventually surfaced in The Herald story, which highlighted four sex-abuse allegations by teenage Nicaraguan and Salvadoran refugees from 1983 to 1988.
Garcia-Rubio has repeatedly denied the allegations in the past. Now 67, he is believed to be living in Costa Rica.
Archdiocese spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta declined comment ''on any aspect of the Garcia-Rubio case,'' saying it would be ''inappropriate'' because of pending litigation.
The Herald story and follow-ups shook up the archdiocese because Garcia-Rubio, who had been expelled from Cuba's Catholic Church for homosexual behavior, was once heralded as Miami's ''patron saint'' of Central American refugee youths.
The allegations triggered a criminal investigation in 1990, but no charges were filed because none of the teenagers would tell investigators they were sexually abused.
The allegations also prompted five negligence lawsuits against the archdiocese -- two of which were settled this year for $75,000 each.
The Herald obtained the archdiocese records on Garcia-Rubio from Miami-Dade police after the state attorney's office decided this summer it could not file charges because the statute of limitations had expired.
''The number and types of complaints clearly indicated that this man was a predator whose modus operandi was to victimize troubled teenagers who turned to him for help,'' prosecutor David Maer said Friday. ``[But] from the moment we began the investigation, we knew that the law tied our hands.''
Archdiocese records on Garcia-Rubio, including correspondence between McCarthy and his top assistants, show the church leaders were concerned about bad publicity. The case was the archdiocese's first alleged clergy sex scandal to become public, though it had confidentially settled several earlier complaints.
McCarthy decried The Herald stories and editorials criticizing the church for failing to report complaints about Garcia-Rubio to authorities.
''It is a sad day for the Archdiocese of Miami, Catholics and all fair-minded people,'' McCarthy said in a November 1988 media statement. ``The Miami Herald's story regarding Father Ernesto Garcia-Rubio has jeopardized the reputation and ministry of a very dedicated and self-sacrificing priest.''
The archdiocese's chancellor, the Rev. Gerard LaCerra, writing in a Catholic newspaper, said: ``The approach taken by The Miami Herald was one of inquisition, not investigation.''
But behind the scenes, the archdiocese's top officials raised serious questions about the sex-abuse complaints against Garcia-Rubio. In December 1988, they sent him to St. Luke's Institute for a pedophilia evaluation. The institute is a Catholic Church-owned treatment center in Maryland.
On Feb. 7, 1989, LaCerra wrote McCarthy that St. Luke's found ''insufficient'' information to confirm pedophilia. But he added: ``This does mean that great caution and monitoring will be necessary in the future. . . . They had said to me that everything was borderline.''
LaCerra, who died in 2000, also said St. Luke's recommended group therapy for the priest.
While Garcia-Rubio was on sabbatical in Colombia, he asked the Miami archdiocese for a temporary reassignment in Honduras.
In the February 1989 memo, LaCerra urged McCarthy to update the archbishop in Tegucigalpa about Garcia-Rubio's pedophilia evaluation. He also said it would be ''desirable'' to keep him away from Miami.
''I feel that we still have not heard the last of the matter, and the longer the time and the greater the space, the better,'' LaCerra told McCarthy.
As Garcia-Rubio was beginning his new posting as pastor near Tegucigalpa, The Herald published another story in March 1989 that said the Honduran archdiocese's chancellor was not aware of abuse complaints against Garcia-Rubio.
In that story, Monsignor Bryan Walsh, a member of McCarthy's inner circle, commented: ``The bishop of the receiving diocese has an obligation to check out very thoroughly the person he's receiving.''
That prompted LaCerra to write to Auxiliary Bishop Norbert Dorsey: ``The impression was given that the [Miami] archdiocese attempted to conceal information concerning . . . Garcia-Rubio. I think it is important that we are all saying the same thing in this matter.''
The church then issued a statement, written by LaCerra: ``The Archdiocese of Miami has made no attempt to conceal the nature of the allegations, but rather has communicated freely with [the archbishop of Tegucigalpa] in a spirit of openness and candor.''
Indeed, investigative records show McCarthy had told Honduran Archbishop Hector Enrique Santos Hernandez about the sex-abuse complaints in at least three letters leading up to Garcia-Rubio's transfer to Tegucigalpa in early 1989.
McCarthy also praised the priest, saying he provided ''extraordinary pastoral service'' for 25 years. But in his recommendation, he issued a warning to Santos Hernandez.
''In a very confidential way, I must share with you . . . the fact that he has been accused of taking undue liberties with young boys and of having had improper relationships with other men,'' McCarthy wrote in October 1988, one month before even the first Herald story ran on the complaints against him. ``We have had difficulty in proving these persistent charges.''
In February 1989, McCarthy wrote his Honduran counterpart to share the results of the St. Luke's evaluation.
''There was not overwhelming evidence to support the truth of the allegations,'' McCarthy wrote. ``This does not preclude the possibility there might be some problems present in the future. . . . It was also strongly suggested that he not be allowed to minister in a context which would involve interaction with adolescent males.''
Later that year, McCarthy sent another letter to the Honduran archdiocese, insisting that Garcia-Rubio -- who was still a priest in the Miami archdiocese -- receive group therapy there.
McCarthy also wrote Garcia-Rubio in November, suggesting he return to St. Luke's. The priest replied that ''your letter . . . made me very sad, especially after all the sacrifices that I have endured this past year.'' Garcia-Rubio decided to leave Honduras and live with a relative in South America.
McCarthy responded on Dec. 15, 1989: 'In light of your decision and other related matters, I am placing you on `administrative leave' and removing the faculties of the archdiocese.''
During the 1990s, Garcia-Rubio married a woman in Venezuela, had a daughter with her and later lived in a west Miami-Dade condo for a few years. He eventually divorced. In 1999, the Vatican formally defrocked Garcia-Rubio.
One former member of his Sweetwater parish -- which had been bitterly divided over the accusations against him -- said Friday that the Miami archdiocese should have been more open about Garcia-Rubio's past.
''They just kept on hiding the problem,'' Eduardo Cifuentes charged.
``By hiding the problem, they were avoiding the solution. All I ever wanted
was he not be a priest anymore.''