Lagarejos Case Tests Church's Vow to Punish Abusive Priests

No one seems surprised at this latest case involving a Catholic priest-and that in itself is a tragedy.

Another sex controversy has hit the Catholic Church, and no one’s particularly surprised. That the priest in question posted bail isn’t much of a shocker either, despite how infuriating it may be. For P120,000, the priest was released after getting arrested for taking a 13-year-old girl to a motel, after having paid P500 to a pimp. The priest at the center of this is 55-year-old Monsignor Arnel Fuentes Lagarejos, parish priest of St. John The Baptist Parish and president of Cainta Catholic College, before his arrest stripped him of all his titles. Lagarejos, once a respected household name in his immediate community, is now facing charges of human trafficking.

This is hardly the first case of its kind, and no one’s holding out hope that it’s the last. In fact, Lagarejos’ arrest comes only a month after the third-highest Vatican official, a close colleague of Pope Francis', was charged with similar crimes in Australia. 


Here’s how it went down

On July 28, the joint team of Marikina City Police Women and Children's Protection Desk and Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) caught more than just a pimp—they caught the priest the pimp was selling to.

An out of school youth, the 13-year-old victim in question was sold to Lagarejos over text message transactions between her, the priest, and the pimp—a 16-year-old boy she described as her “gay friend” who was also selling her friends for sexual services to other men.

However, the victim’s mother learned of the situation and contacted the police, who then set up the entrapment operation to capture the pimp and the man who bought her. After paying the pimp P500 at Blue Wave Mall in Marikina City to pick up the girl, Lagarejos was on his way to a motel, only to be apprehended by police. 


Upon arrest, the suspect originally said he was self-employed, but further questioning revealed that he was none other than the parish priest of St. John The Baptist Parish and president of Cainta Catholic College, Monsignor Arnel Fuentes Lagarejos. He was stripped of all of his titles on July 29, a day after his arrest.

Lagarejos was arrested for trafficking and not rape, since sex wasn’t involved in this incident, says Metro Manila police chief Oscar Albayalde. However, he can still face a rape case if filed by the victim’s parents, DSWD, or Philippine National Police, on the grounds that the victim is a minor.

Recent reports state that the priest was released on bail on the basis of “using” a trafficking person and not engaging in the act of trafficking a person—which is what the pimp is being charged with, resulting in his denial of bail. Marikina Mayor Marcelino Teodoro shared that he is looking into reports that a retired judge allegedly influenced the chief inquest prosecutor’s decision.

The girl revealed that this wasn’t the first time she was to have sex with Lagarejos. According to a report from the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Lagarejos first brought her to a motel room in June and told her at gunpoint not to accept bookings from other men. This previous meeting is now being investigated.

Meanwhile, the mother of the victim has been receiving threatening phone calls demanding that she drop the case.


The Church issues a strong and swift response

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Headed by Antipolo Bishop Francisco de Leon, the Diocese of Antipolo responded swiftly to the arrest with a statement, saying, “Even as his guilt remains to be proved and the precepts of the Constitution grant him the presumption of innocence, the Diocese has taken every step to hold him answerable for the charges brought against him both before the Republic and before the Church.” The statement added, "[The Dioscese of Antipolo] condemns in the strongest terms possible the trafficking of persons.” 

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines suspended Lagarejos and stripped him of his titles, in line with Pope Francis’ decree last June to sack priests embroiled in child abuse cases.

The diocese’s stance is laudable and, fortunately, a far cry from the way the Catholic Church in the Philippines has handled similar cases in the past. In 2011, Butuan Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos shielded Fr. Raul Cabonce from rape accusations by a 17-year-old girl. The priest was transferred to another parish while the controversy boiled on.

Too many similar incidents to cite have been occurring in the Philippines for decades, and many more have gone unreported. Retired Archbishop Emeritus Oscar Cruz, the head of the Catholic Church’s National Tribunal of Appeals in the Philippines, says there has been a rise in child sexual abuse cases involving priests, which he credits to the fact that there are more people reporting abuse, rather than there being an increase in crimes committed. Cruz revealed that they handle about 60 cases at a time, though he fears that there may be more, since there are cases that are not brought to the tribunal.


Cruz, a leading crusader from within the Church, had said in an interview with Al Jazeera, "I may be offending other bishops but this is a personal stand, that gone are the days when you can just close your eyes and plug your ears ... as if nothing is happening."

In the Lagarejos case, Cruz says that, if found guilty after the CBCP's investigation, the suspect will be stripped of his priestly status in Rome—where the Vatican already has its hands full with another pedophilia case and its own impasse at handling these controversies.


Meanwhile, at the Vatican

This all comes only a month after multiple sexual assault charges hit Cardinal George Pell, the third-most senior official at the Vatican and formerly a close confidant of Pope Francis'. Pell is currently the most senior member of the Catholic Church to be embroiled in child abuse and sexual abuse cases.

Early cases go back as far as the 1960s, although it's safe to say that there were unreported incidents way before then. The scourge has continued throughout the globe to the present day—with the United States, Ireland, Australia, and many other countries reporting strings of controversies involving Catholic priests.

In his early days of power in 2013, Pope Francis underscored his “zero tolerance” approach to abuse cases involving members of the Catholic Church. In a public letter released in December, 2016, Pope Francis said, “She [the Church] recognizes the sins of some of her members: the sufferings, the experiences and the pain of minors who were abused sexually by priests. It is a sin that shames us.”


Yet many are now questioning his commitment to cracking down on pedophilia and child abuse within the religious institution. His recent actions are evident of that after he appointed Bishop Juan Barrow into a position despite his involvement in covering up the sex abuse of another priest. He has also been accused of indecisiveness after he showed clemency to the Italian priest Mauro Inzoli, who was found guilty of pedophilia, by restoring him to priesthood in 2015, before reversing his decision in 2017.

Vatican spokesperson Greg Burke said that the pope’s emphasis on mercy included “even those who are guilty of heinous crimes.” While the Pope’s recent actions show his vision for a “merciful Church,” many are now questioning whether his mercy will overpower the call for justice.

On a global scale, incidents involving ordained priests reflects the need for long-term reforms and preventative measures to be set in motion before more children are victimized. And with Lagarejos and Cardinal Pell in the spotlight, the church’s “zero tolerance” stance will be tested now more than ever.

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Anri Ichimura
Section Editor, Esquire Philippines
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