By MARY ANNE CASTRANIO, Staff Writer | Published August 21, 2008
Parishioners at St. Philip Benizi Church heard a message of explanation, sorrow and prayer from their pastor, Conventual Franciscan Father Gregory Hartmayer, this past weekend. The priest spoke in both English and Spanish at the conclusion of all seven weekend Masses at the Jonesboro church on Aug. 16-17, addressing the concerns and questions of parishioners following recent news reports that a contract musician at the church was arrested on child sexual abuse charges.
Rafael Rojas-Lopez Garcia, 40, who directed an adult Hispanic choir at St. Philip Benizi, was arrested in Clayton County Monday, Aug. 4, on multiple counts of felony child sex abuse. He has been charged with sexual battery, enticing a child for indecent purposes, child molestation and sexual exploitation of children. Garcia is in the Clayton County Jail, without bond, as the investigation continues.
According to published news reports, Garcia molested at least one and perhaps up to three children in the home of a local family where he had rented a room for the past two and a half years. He also taught private music lessons at the home. Family members, who are not parishioners at St. Philip Benizi, discovered the abuse of their child and reported it to police.
In an interview, Father Hartmayer said he does not believe any of the alleged abuse took place at the church.
“There’s no evidence that parishioners were involved” as victims, he said.
At the weekend Masses, Father Hartmayer expressed his feelings of anger and pain with his parishioners.
“This past week has been difficult for all of us. It is a struggle for me to put my feelings into words because I have so many mixed feelings. I feel angry that a person who was associated with our parish, although in a very limited way, would betray the trust of a child,” he said.
He clarified the man’s association with the parish.
“The perpetrator of this heinous crime was an independent contractor who agreed to play the piano and direct the adult choir at the 12:30 Spanish Mass for a modest stipend. His relationship with the parish and its members was remote,” the pastor said. “Unless he was privately contracted to play the piano at a wedding, his time on church property was about three hours per week. By profession, he is a painter, and yet all we heard and read in the media was that he was the choir director at St. Philip Benizi Catholic Church.”
Father Hartmayer said in an interview that Garcia had volunteered with the church choir for some time and was hired to direct the music for that Mass over a year ago. He did not work with children or vulnerable adults in any capacity at the church.
Father Hartmayer said that Garcia had no office at the church and did not teach any private lessons there. His involvement at the parish was “slight.”
In his talks during the Masses, he said, “I have not been notified that there is any evidence that any abuse took place on parish property, nor have I been told that any of the children photographed and molested were from our parish.”
The police told Father Hartmayer that because the man had filmed the abuse and placed the videos on the Internet, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is now involved in the case.
Father Hartmayer urged parishioners who may have had contact with Garcia and have any reason to suspect their children were abused by him to contact the Clayton County police department immediately. He also reminded the parish that the archdiocese has extremely strict guidelines on keeping children safe.
The pastor expressed his further sorrow for the man.
“The only consolation I have is that pedophilia is a disease. It is a dangerous sickness. It is an addictive and compulsive pathology.”
He ended his talks with the counsel that reconciliation and prayer are the next steps. “We need to help each other embrace the gospel of reconciliation. This is the gospel teaching that often is the most difficult. We cannot achieve reconciliation without God’s grace.”