Claims of sexual abuse by former Southside priest results in calls to stay execution
Published: June 15, 2011
René also told of rumors that Fernandez convinced children to remove their clothes while reenacting stories from the Bible at the church. In sworn affidavits filed with Leal’s clemency petition last week, some of Fernandez’s alleged victims told similar stories.
One wrote that when he was 11 years old, Fernandez asked him to play the role of Jesus while they were alone together in his room. “He gave me a loincloth to put on … He told me that since Jesus did not wear any pants, I should take mine off,” the victim wrote. “He looked at me naked. He was coming towards me as I was putting on the loincloth. At that moment, he stopped because someone walked in the room.”
René and his family left St. Clare’s for another parish in 1984, but late last year one of his own family members came forward saying that she had been sexually abused by Fernandez as a child. “That priest needs to be brought to the United States, and our DA needs to open a case. … That priest deserves to be in jail,” René said.
René said he remembered Leal and his family from the neighborhood. “I don’t have a whole lot of love for that family, but from what I know now, I don’t think that kid should be executed,” he said. “If [Leal is] like that, if he did what they say, it’s because the priest made him that way.”
Facing physical abuse from his own parents at home, Leal sought refuge in the church as a child, his lawyers say. When nuns would scold him for misbehaving in communion class, he was sent to Father Fernandez for punishment. Leal began to detail the alleged abuse during an evaluation in March conducted by David Lisak, a clinical psychologist and expert in the field of male sexual abuse hired by Leal’s defense team. Lisak said that Leal described textbook “grooming” techniques commonly associated with child abusers, saying Fernandez’s behavior escalated from inappropriate touching to exposing himself to a young Leal in a church bathroom. Repeated groping eventually culminated in anal rape when Leal was 11 years old, Lisak said.
Lisak also said Leal’s disclosure was marked with what he called anguish, intense humiliation, shame and “emotional states that at times were so intense that he could not continue speaking.”
In 1983, around the same time he joined St. Clare’s, police arrested Fernandez after a local swimming pool manager claimed the priest had been exposing himself to young girls. According to court records, the manager claimed attorneys with the local diocese approached him when he showed up in court to testify against Fernandez, convincing him to drop the charges and let the church handle the matter internally.
Then in 1988 Fernandez was indicted on charges of indecency with a child when two neighborhood boys came forward and accused the priest of molestation. At the time, fearing the children would crumble on the stand if forced to publicly testify, then-Bexar County District Attorney Fred Rodriguez struck a deal with Fernandez’s lawyers in which the priest would plead guilty and face a lesser sentence of 10 years probation and mandated psychiatric counseling. The deal also would have kept Fernandez away from children and out of the priesthood.
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