A Catholic priest was convicted Thursday of sexually abusing two girls at a District of Columbia church after an emotional trial during which prosecutors said he used his position of trust to victimize the young parishioners.
Urbano Vazquez, 47, showed no emotion as the jury foreman read the guilty verdicts in D.C. Superior Court.
The jurors found that Vazquez groped a 13-year-old girl in 2015 and kissed and groped a 9-year-old girl in 2016. The incidents happened while he was serving as an assistant pastor at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Washington.
"He took vows to act in a Godlike manner, to act like Jesus. But he did not act in a Godlike manner and forever changed the lives of these girls," federal prosecutor Sharon Marcus-Kurn said in her closing argument as one juror nodded. "He wore priest's clothes, but underneath was a devil to them, sexually assaulting them."
Both victims took the witness stand during the nine-day trial in D.C. Superior Court. One told jurors she initially kept the incidents a secret from her mother because she feared "something worser would happen," like "rape." Another said she cried after Urbano slipped his hand under her bra as she was resting in a church office.
Vazquez was convicted of three charges of second-degree sexual abuse of a child and one count of misdemeanor sex abuse of a child. The jury also agreed with the prosecution that based on the ages of the victims and Vazquez's role of leadership at the church, his penalty should be enhanced. Vazquez faces a maximum of 45 years in prison when he is sentenced Nov. 22.
Vazquez denied the allegations, and members of the church came to court to support him. Other parishioners, some wearing green ribbons, came to support the victims.
"This is a relief for the victims," Alex Taliadoros, 27, a member of the church, said outside the courtroom after the verdict was read. "We are sad for the community. But this is some justice. We now hope for healing moving on."
Prosecutors said Vazquez would isolate the girls and assault them, sometimes during Sunday morning services in rooms outside the sanctuary.
One victim, now a teenager, testified how in 2015 when she was 13, Vazquez cornered her in a church office and, reaching down her blouse, groped her breast as her brother was asleep on the floor nearby.
The youngest victim, now 12, testified that she sang in the church choir and was an altar girl. She said at the end of one service, Vazquez kissed her, put his tongue in her mouth and grabbed her genitalia and buttocks.
"He was brazen. He got a thrill out of doing that during the Mass services, behind closed doors," Marcus-Kurn argued during closing arguments Wednesday.
Marcus-Kurn told the jury Vazquez, like the other priests in his order, wore a robe with a rope around it. The ropes have three knots that symbolize the priests' vows of poverty, obedience and chastity.
Marcus-Kurn said Vazquez, a Mexican native and American citizen, betrayed those vows at a place Marcus-Kurn said was more than a church building, but was for many members of the predominantly Latino parish, an extension of their own homes. She said they gathered there for regular celebrations and dinners in addition to worship services.
Vazquez, who was assigned to Sacred Heart 2014, is a member of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, a fellowship of priests, and was not ordained by the Archdiocese of Washington. The archdiocese grants some Capuchins permission to work in its churches.
Authorities criticized the former leadership of the Shrine of the Sacred Heart after they learned that as early as 2015, church leaders were told of allegations that Vazquez may have sexually assaulted a teenage member of the parish. Vazquez was allowed to remain at the church. After Vazquez's arrest in November, his supervising priest was removed as pastor, and the church's child protection coordinator was placed on leave.
Since his arrest, Vazquez has repeatedly denied the accusations. During trial, Vazquez took the stand and denied any of the incidents happened. He described his duties at the church and various missionary trips to El Salvador. He said he was never alone with any of the alleged victims.
There were no eyewitnesses to the incidents. During his closing arguments, Vazquez's attorney, Robert Bonsib, challenged the credibility of the girls' accusations, pointing out what he identified as contradictions between what they told the jury and what they originally told authorities or said in a grand jury proceeding.
One of the victims told authorities she had stopped going to Vazquez for private confession, but she told the jury that she continued to see him. One victim testified that she told another pastor Vazquez had touched her breast. But the pastor testified she told him Vazquez attempted to touch her breast.
Bonsib also said the girls were not able to give specific dates of the alleged assaults.
The jury deliberated less than a day before returning verdicts.
Outside the courtroom, Bonsib said that his client was "disappointed" in the result, but that they plan to appeal. Bonsib said his client was unfairly prejudiced when Judge Juliet McKenna allowed the two victims, as well as another alleged victim who was not part of the case, testify. Bonsib said the allegations should have been considered at separate trials.
Vazquez faces another trial of misdemeanor sexual abuse involving a woman who was also a member of the parish in 2017. Prosecutors have also said they identified another potential victim, but the statute of limitations expired in that case.
The U.S. attorney's office noted it has set up a clergy abuse hotline at 202-252-7008 or USADC.ReportClergyAbuse@usdoj.gov for anyone who wants to report alleged abuse.
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