AP NEWS

Indicted priest pleads not guilty in sex abuse case

May 13, 2019

CONROE—An indicted priest has pleaded not guilty Monday to charges stemming from allegations of sexual abuse at a Conroe parish, officials said.

Former Sacred Heart Catholic Church cleric Manuel La Rosa-Lopez quietly entered his plea on two counts of indecency with a child and left the 435th District Court in Montgomery County with his legal defense team through a side door.

The charges stem from an accuser who said the priest abused her in 2001 while he was assigned to the Frazier Street church. A grand jury has not yet convened on two additional counts of indecency with a child from a second accuser, according to officials.

He could face anywhere from two to 20 years in prison on the charges if convicted.

The widening probe into La Rosa-Lopez has garnered more documents than is typical for a sexual assault case, Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon said as the priest appeared in court.

About 16,000 records were seized during four search warrants conducted in three separate counties, Ligon said. Churches in Conroe and Richmond and a clergy rehabilitation facility in Splendora were among the first facilities that law enforcement officials searched after the priest’s arrest.

The biggest cache of records came from the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston headquarters in downtown Houston.

“Sixteen thousand documents on a white-collar case is not extraordinary at all,” Ligon said. But he added, “Sixteen thousand documents on a sexual assault case would be a lot of documents.”

The cache of records is unusual, Ligon noted, because a sexual assault case typically depends on victim statements, physical evidence and reports based on that evidence to go through.

Ligon attributed the “massive amount of discovery” to the number of search warrants that were used to track evidence related to the priest’s transfers from parish to parish.

La Rosa-Lopez has faced allegations from at least four accusers, two of whose allegations resulted in the criminal charges.

A third accuser has said La Rosa-Lopez, then a seminarian in 1992, had inappropriate contact with him at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Houston, while a fourth person in April launched a civil suit against the Conroe church alleging that the priest exposed his genitals to him in a confession booth in 2001.

Ligon declined to discuss the allegations lodged by the third and fourth accuser.

The hearing on Monday brought La Rosa-Lopez into the courtroom for the first time since January, about three weeks before the archdiocese identified him as being one of two priests under investigation for child sex abuse claims.

He is slated to return to court on July 15.

Outside the courtroom were members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests to show their support for the accusers and encourage others to come forward.

The priest’s decision to plead not guilty was “the status quo,” said Carol Midboe, head of the group’s Austin chapter.

She declined to discuss in depth the allegations by a female accuser that sparked the charges, citing the ongoing criminal investigation and “a possible civil suit to follow.”

nicole.hensley@chron.com