The Catholic Church often shuffled priests accused of sexually abusing children from one assignment to another instead of removing them from ministry immediately, a KHOU 11 Investigates analysis has found.
Most of the 40 priests the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston named as credibly accused spent three years or fewer at each church assignment, even though church doctrine recommends assignments last six years or longer.
“The most common response, the most common solution, was the geographic solution, to transfer a priest to another parish, quietly, secretly — without warning the receiving pastor or the people there — why he’s being transferred,” said Tom Doyle, an inactive priest turned legal expert for survivors.
One of the worst examples was Antonio Hernandez Gonzales, known as Father Tony, who was ordained in the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in 1957 and had at least 16 assignments in his 30 years as a priest. His stops included ones in Houston, Huntsville, Galveston and Dickinson in the 1960s and ‘80s.
Accusations that he abused young girls across Texas and beyond followed him throughout his career and began just a few years after he was ordained. Court records reveal that the Catholic Church knew about the abuse, but did little to nothing to stop it.
In 1963, Gonzales’ superior reprimanded him, writing of “proven instances” of “kissing and fondling women and girls.” The accusations came from parishes in Houston, Brownsville and Austin where Gonzales served. But despite that pattern of sexual misconduct, the priest received little punishment.
“I hereby issue you a canonical warning to desist from such acts, to avoid giving scandal and to take the treatment set up for you by a competent psychiatrist and or doctor as part of your penance,” his superior wrote.
At the time, Gonzales was assigned to Immaculate Heart of Mary in Houston. Despite the reprimand, he stayed there until 1966 when he was transferred to Sacred Heart in Uvalde, Our Lady of Guadalupe in Galveston and St. Thomas the Apostle in Huntsville in the late 1960s. He then was sent to churches in the Diocese of Baton Rouge and San Antonio in the 1970s, where he faced more accusations.
In Louisiana, his superiors sent a representative to warn him and then sent him to treatment in New Mexico. He went back to work in the Archdiocese of San Antonio, where he began a relationship with a 14-year-old girl and fathered two of the teenagers’ children.
“He told all of him Oblate superiors about the sexual acting out with young girls, but they kept putting him back in assignments,” Doyle wrote in an affidavit in 2006 when Gonzales was sued.
Despite all that, the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston welcomed him back in the 1980s at Immaculate Conception parish, and yet another teenage girl said Gonzales got her pregnant.
When she told another priest at Immaculate Conception, his response was, “Fr. Tony gets a lot of girls pregnant. He’s not here.”
He was transferred again.
“I mean when they protect these priests they feel they’re free and easy and they can go out and do again,” Doyle said.
Records show one of Father Tony’s final transfers was to Canada for a period of “retreat, renewal and counseling.” But there, he raped another underage girl and later married her after he was kicked out of the church.
The priest later wrote, “it would be difficult to count the number of women I have been with.” However, he did know that he had fathered at least nine children, including at least four when he was a priest, he said in a deposition.
“I ran back to the church which has always protected me,” Gonzales said in court documents.
Other instances of transfers following allegations are documented in court documents and assignment histories outlined in national and local Catholic directories.
Former priest Fernando Noe Guzman, for example, was working at churches in Navasota in 1984 when a case worker walked in on him and a partially-clothed underage girl, according to court records.
In an affidavit, the case worker described what happened after she told church officials.
“My husband told him that if Father Guzman did it once, he would do it again,” she said. “They told me to just keep it to myself and not tell anybody because it could case a scandal. Later, I was told they were going to transfer Father Guzman to Houston.”
Guzman was reassigned to Our Lady of Fatima Church in Houston, where he was accused of beginning a relationship with a married woman and fathering her child. He was removed from ministry soon after.
“What it equals is a systemic problem, this is not an occasional response by a bishop here, a bishop there – this is in the very system,” Doyle said about the practice of transferring priests. “There is something in the nature of the system that tells them, we have to do anything we can to protect it.”