A priest who also was a high-ranking official in the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento testified today that he was not acting in the capacity of a "confessor" or "spiritual director" when he and a private investigator told the Rev. Uriel Ojeda two years ago that he was the subject of a sexual abuse investigation.
The priest, Timothy Nondorf, said none of the rituals even remotely suggesting the Catholic sacrament of confession were at play when he and the investigator visited Ojeda on Nov. 30, 2011, at the Ojeda's parish in Redding. The subject of the visit, Nondorf said, was to deliver a letter to Ojeda informing him that "a credible accusation" had been lodged against him and that he was going to be removed from the ministry.
Nondorf said that when he delivered the letter to Ojeda with the purpose of bringing him back to Sacramento to face charges, he was acting only in his role as an official representative of Bishop Jaime Soto in the investigation into allegations that Ojeda had engaged in sexual misconduct with a girl who was then 14.
"In my role as a delegate, I am the bishop's mouth and eyes and ears," Nondorf testified. "Everything I say is related back to the bishop. It is canonically impossible for me to hear a confession."
Ojeda's lawyer, Jesse Ortiz, is trying to suppress the statements prosecutors say his client made to Joseph Sheehan, the private investigator for the law firm that represents the church and who accompanied Nondorf to Redding the day they contacted the priest. Ortiz maintains that Ojeda's comments were protected by the "penitent's privilege." Deputy District Attorney Allison Dunham said in a past court hearing that Ojeda, 33, admitted in his conversations with the investigator to having had sexual contact with the girl on 10 occasions. Ojeda has since been charged in a seven-count complaint of molesting the girl.
In his testimony this morning in front of Sacramento Superior Court Judge Eugene L. Balonon, Nondorf did not get into the details of any of Ojeda's alleged admissions.
Nondorf had worked as priest secretary to Bishop Soto as well as vice-chancellor of the diocese and assistant priest personnel director. He now serves a parish priest in Chico. He testified that he and Sheehan drove up to Redding to see Ojeda the day after the girl's father made the allegations against the priest. Besides removing Ojeda from his ministry, he said he was directed by Soto to inform the priest that his canonical rights to salary, medical benefits and housing would be retained, but that he would have to be brought back to Sacramento to face the charges.
When they told Ojeda why they were there, Nondorf testified that the priest "seemed resigned."
"He didn't emote any surprise or anger or hurt," Nondorf testified. "He was just resigned."
Nondorf testified that he and Sheehan met with Ojeda in the living room of the rectory of Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Redding. During their meeting, they told Ojeda to pack for the trip to Sacramento. On the way to Sacramento, Nondorf terstified that Ojeda made the decision on his own to turn himself into Sacramento police.
At the police station on Freeport Boulevard, Nondorf said he received a blessing from Ojeda before police took him into custody.
"I was heartbroken," Nondorf testified, his voice wavering. "Here was a young man who was going to face a few months (in jail), if not years, of a very hard life. I thought I could offer him a few moments of compassion on what was going to be a hard and ugly life. It was all I could do."
Nondorf said "I actually got in a little bit of trouble" for offering to accept a blessing from Ojeda. "But at that moment, I felt there was another human being who was hurting."
Under cross-examination from Ortiz, Nondorf said that when he and Sheehan visited the priest, he never told Ojeda he had a right to a lawyer under canon, civil or criminal law, or that anything he said would not be confidential. After he gave Ojeda the blessing, Nondorf affirmed under questioning from Ortiz that he told the priest to get himself a criminal lawyer and to not say anything to the police until he did.
Sheehan, in his afternoon testimony, did not provide any details about what Ojeda told him in their conversation that he said lasted 15 to 20 minutes. He testified that Ojeda never asked that his statement be kept confidential, and he said he never communicated anything to the priest suggesting that it would be.
The investigator said he told Ojeda that a man complained to the church that the priest "had engaged in improper activities" with the parishioner's daughter.
"I asked Father Ojeda if he had any recollection of this activity," Sheehan testified, but he was not asked to provide the priest's answer.
Sheehan also said he told Ojeda to leave his computer behind when he packed up some belongings for the trip to Sacramento.
"I don't even want those computers turned off," Sheehan said he instructed Ojeda. There were no questions about what had been downloaded onto them.
The investigator testified he told Ojeda it was "probable" that he would be arrested when they returned to Sacramento.
Under questioning from Ortiz, Sheehan said he never told Ojeda he had a right to leave he wanted.