Friday, January 24, 2003

IRS investigating priest and his ministry (LRR)

Federal and state authorities are moving against a Catholic priest's ministry that has spent large sums of money to benefit its leaders while charging poor people millions for help, sources say.

The Internal Revenue Service, reacting to recent articles in The Dallas Morning News, has assigned a criminal investigator to scrutinize Casita Maria, a tax-exempt ministry that counsels foreigners on how to deal with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The INS' Dallas office, in turn, is urging an end to government certification of Casita Maria as an organization fit to provide such counseling. Two Dallas lawyers who formerly served on the charity's board said such unprecedented action, which needs U.S. Justice Department approval, would put Casita out of business.

INS spokeswoman Patricia Mancha confirmed that the agency's primary concern is that Casita improperly depends on client fees for income, instead of raising outside funds and offering free or nominally priced aid to the poor. She declined to comment further. ....The Rev. Justin Lucio, a priest in good standing with Dallas Bishop Charles Grahmann, controls the charity as executive director and board chairman. The charity receives no diocesan funding or supervision.

....Guadalupe Granados, who recently resigned from Casita's board but remains on its paid staff, told The News two weeks ago that it was the priest's idea to buy the house in DeSoto. Father Lucio conceded that point when pressed by WFAA.

Ms. Granados said that Father Lucio telephoned her to get a proxy vote approving a house loan, and that there is no record of the vote. Another board member who recently quit, Dallas lawyer Jose Pineda, said Father Lucio did not contact him about the decision.

One of the sellers of the house, Rhonda Alvarado, said the priest and the maintenance man, 28-year-old David Villatoro, paid $179,000 in cash to close the deal. She said she was shocked to learn from recent articles in The News that the money had come from fees paid by undocumented immigrants.

Ms. Alvarado said Father Lucio contacted her about three days before closing and said his loan had fallen through. "He called to assure me," she said, "that he had the cash, that he was going to borrow it from a friend."

Father Lucio later transferred the house's title to Casita, and board members decided to charge him and Mr. Villatoro $10 in monthly rent. Board meeting minutes reflect no discussion of why Father Lucio needed housing, given that he already had a home – a duplex in East Dallas that he still owns.

When WFAA asked why he needed the new house, the 59-year-old priest cited poor health and said, "It seemed to me at the time that the house in DeSoto was a little bit closer." In fact, it is several miles farther from Casita's office in north Oak Cliff than the duplex is.

....Father Lucio started Casita in 1989 after Bishop Thomas Tschoepe removed him from his last pastor's job because of sexual and financial misconduct allegations. Bishop Tschoepe let the priest run the charity as a "special assignment," as Bishop Grahmann has done since taking over the Dallas Diocese in 1990.

The priest has denied the misconduct accusations, which diocesan spokesman Bronson Havard has said were never substantiated. Mr. Havard has downplayed sworn statements by four people corroborating the allegations and the priest's acknowledgment, in a 1991 deposition, that he sometimes handled Latino parishioners' genitals when they had health concerns.

.....Asked to explain, Father Lucio said Hispanics with health concerns have no inhibitions about showing "what's wrong and what needs to be corrected. ..." "They simply go like this and they show you. And they say, look, what is – what is this?" he testified. "Yes, that's what my people do."


Another fine case from the...Grahmann Files...

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