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Claims of sexual abuse by former Southside priest results in calls to stay execution

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

A young Humberto Leal (left) with Sister Maria and his brother at St. Clare’s church.

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

Leal’s first communion certificate, signed by Federico Fernandez

The church of St. Clare’s, a symbol of faith and piety for some in this small Southside community, has become an icon of the fear and shame others here have kept buried for decades. In recent weeks, nearly half a dozen current and former parishioners have come forward claiming they were sexually abused by former St. Clare’s priest Father Federico Fernandez.

And the gathering of voices is now calling on Governor Rick Perry to stay the execution of death-row inmate Humberto Leal, Jr., scheduled for lethal injection on July 7, in order to help prosecute a case against the priest. Lawyers for Leal say their client fell victim to Fernandez soon after the priest joined the church in 1983 and note that complaints of abuse dogged Fernandez during his time in San Antonio.

Fernandez, who was charged with indecency with a child in 1988, a case that ultimately fell apart, denies any wrongdoing.

“I really felt like the church was my calling,” said a soft-spoken man now in his 40s, who asked not to be identified in this story. “I still love the church, but this man almost ruined that.”

Standing in the St. Clare’s parking lot, the man recalled regularly attending Bible classes and serving as an altar boy, and how Fernandez would take him and others to swimming pools and water parks in the summer. When he was 15, Fernandez drew him into a room alone and began to strip naked in front of him, he said. “This man hurt kids. I know I’m not the only one and I know he did worse,” said the man, who said he hasn’t told his friends or family of the abuse to this day.

Leal, convicted in the brutal 1994 rape and murder of a Southside teenage girl [See “Illegal Injections,” May 25, 2011], recently revealed troubling and vivid details of abuse by the Franciscan priest when he was a young St. Clare’s parishioner, his lawyers say. Other self-identified victims of the priest, who now practices in Bogotá, Colombia, have come forward in the hopes that their story can help stay Leal’s fast-approaching execution and persuade authorities to investigate and prosecute Fernandez.

Allegations of misconduct began to plague Fernandez soon after he joined St. Clare’s in 1983, said René, a former church member who asked only to be identified by his first name to protect his family.

René began attending St. Clare’s as a child in the 1950s and saw all six of his own children baptized in the church. He was a youth minister at St. Clare’s when Fernandez arrived and recalled being uneasy with the priest from the start. He remembered alarming stories from children and other members, and that one nun, who he knew as Sister Maria, warned him to keep his children away from Fernandez, claiming the priest was an “evil man.” René eventually grew combative with Fernandez and tried warning church officials who, he said, were largely aware of the allegations but chose to ignore them.

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