Newark, N.J. — In an extraordinary admission of wrongdoing, a priest sought by authorities in New Jersey has acknowledged engaging in a sexual encounter with a 15-year-old boy, but he deflected blame for the incident by saying the teen "wanted" it and had "evil in his mind."
In a telephone interview with NJ Advance Media, in email exchanges and in a lengthy post on Twitter, the Rev. Manuel Gallo Espinoza said it was a “mistake” to have sexual contact with the boy in the rectory of a Plainfield church in 2003. He said he fled to his native Ecuador after the victim told a nun and another priest that Gallo Espinoza raped him.
"One thing that I am conscious [of] is he was at that time a teenager, and it is a big mistake for me. But I didn’t force him to do anything he didn’t want, " Gallo Espinoza wrote. "He was older [sic] enough to walk away, but I think that I was attracted to him, that is the only explanation that I can think right now."
Gallo Espinoza added: "He had something evil in his mind. He approached me many times."
The 51-year-old priest, who was not questioned by detectives in 2003 because he could not be located, is now the subject of a criminal investigation by the Union County Prosecutor’s Office (in New Jersey).
The agency reopened the long-dormant probe after inquiries by NJ Advance Media, which reported late last month that Gallo Espinoza returned to the United States in 2005 to work as a teacher. He said he went back to Ecuador when his visa expired last year and that he remains there now.
Gallo Espinoza said he does not consider himself a "pedophile person" and that he learned a lesson from the encounter.
"I made a mistake once and that’s [sic] was all," he said.
David Clohessy, director of the St. Louis based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, called on police and prosecutors to pursue criminal charges against the Newark archdiocesan officials who helped Gallo Espinoza evade the law.
"It’s heartbreaking to learn that, once again, New Jersey Catholic officials told a predator priest to flee the U.S. to evade police," said Clohessy. "And it’s equally heartbreaking to learn that the priest later returned to the U.S. and got a job around kids and remains a teacher even now."
Asked by email if he realized he was committing a crime by having sex with a 15-year-old boy when he was 40, Gallo Espinoza responded, "I just came fr [sic] my country and really in Ecuador a person at 15 years old is not consider [sic] so innocent."
He added that he had not had sex with other minors.
Gallo Espinoza’s accuser, Max Rojas Ramirez, said the priest raped him in a bedroom of the rectory at St. Mary’s Church in Plainfield shortly before Easter in 2003. Ramirez, now 28 and living in Elizabeth, was an altar boy and a member of the parish’s youth group at the time.
He said Gallo Espinoza attacked him weeks after he told the priest in confession that he was confused about his sexuality. Ramirez flatly denies Gallo Espinoza’s contention that he sought anything more than counsel.
"I saw him as a priest, and that’s it," Ramirez said. "I didn’t even know who was in the confessional when I went in there. "
He added that he was gratified Gallo Espinoza admitted the encounter, saying it shows he has been telling the truth.
NJ Advance Media published Ramirez’s name at his request.
In March, Ramirez filed suit against the Archdiocese of Newark, saying it was responsible for the priest’s behavior and should have established stronger protections. The incident took place just a year after the nation’s bishops — badly shaken by the church’s sex abuse crisis — established a landmark document known as the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
Gallo Espinoza made reference to Ramirez’s lawsuit in his correspondence, saying the victim had revived the issue after 12 years to cash in.
"The explanation that I find to begin again with this incident after many years is 'EASY MONEY,'" Gallo Espinoza wrote.
He repeatedly blamed his use of alcohol the night he took Ramirez to the rectory, saying he drank too much because he was depressed, lonely and homesick.
In later emails, Gallo Espinoza sought to retract his admission, saying he was so drunk he didn’t remember the incident and simply accepted Ramirez’s claims.
Gallo Espinoza, who had served at St. Mary’s for three years leading up to the sexual encounter, said he wanted to speak out to prove that he is a good person and that he is not a danger to others.
"I want people [to] know that a mistake made in my life doesn’t define myself that way," he wrote in an email. "I am a man dedicated to teach doing my best to help students to get ready to be successful in life."
He said he continues to teach in Ecuador.
He added that stress from the incident has contributed to lasting medical problems, chiefly gastritis and colitis.
It was not immediately clear how Gallo Espinoza’s admission will impact the criminal investigation. Mark Spivey, a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office, declined to comment on the status of the probe or on the priest’s statements. The criminal statute of limitations on sexual assault was abolished by the state Legislature in 1996.
Should the prosecutor’s office charge Gallo Espinoza in absentia, it faces the hurdle of extraditing him. The United States and Ecuador do have an extradition treaty, but a 2012 analysis by the online magazine Slate found the South American nation to be among the least cooperative partners.
Beyond the fate of Gallo Espinoza, the circumstances of his departure raise new questions about those who were made aware of it early on.
Ramirez has said that within days of the attack, he reported it to Jeivi Hercules, his godfather, and Antonino Salazar, then the leader of the charismatic youth group at St. Mary’s. Both men confronted the priest, Ramirez said.
Shortly afterward, he said, Salazar brought him to a Catholic Charities office, where Ramirez told a nun and a priest what had happened. The account is confirmed by a transcript of an interview Salazar gave to police in 2003. It was Catholic Charities that ultimately notified the prosecutor’s office, records show.
While the circumstances of Gallo Espinoza’s abrupt departure have never been fully disclosed, he said in the telephone interview it was Salazar and Hercules who told him to run. Hercules, who has since entered the priesthood, is now parochial vicar at Queen of Peace Church in North Arlington.
"They said, 'You’re going to get in big trouble. You better leave. … God prays for you. Go back to your country,'" Gallo Espinoza said.
Before leaving, he said, he attended confession with another priest and admitted what he did.
Gallo Espinoza said he then bought a plane ticket. He did not inform Archbishop John J. Myers or any other official of his plan to run.
Hercules has not responded to numerous requests for comment. Jim Goodness, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said the priest would not consent to an interview.
Salazar’s wife said the couple would have no comment.
Gallo Espinoza said he wanted to speak with Ramirez to apologize and to "clarify things."
"You know my truth, and I don’t want to make this situation bigger, but to look for a humble solution," he wrote in an email. "… God bless America. I love it with all my heart."
[Mark Mueller writes for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.]