Crime, Fire + Courts

Probation, jail term imposed on former St. James priest

By From page A1 | August 31, 2014

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Hector Coria. Courtesy photo

WOODLAND — As outlined in his June plea agreement, a Roman Catholic priest received probation and jail time Friday in connection with his sexual relationship with an underage girl while serving at St. James Church in Davis.

Hector Coria can pursue alternative sentencing, such as community service, in lieu of the 90-day jail term, Yolo Superior Court Judge Paul Richardson ruled. But Richardson refused to lift an order prohibiting contact between Coria and the alleged victim before her 18th birthday in November, as the girl requested via letter.

Richardson also ordered that the 45-year-old Coria, who as part of the plea deal won’t be required to register as a sex offender, nonetheless undergo sex-offender counseling. He noted that Coria committed a “violation of trust” despite having undergone extensive training about his role in his quest to become a priest.

“I keep getting back to the position of trust, the significant age difference and (difference in) life experiences between these two individuals,” Richardson said. “I do think that some counseling in that area would be appropriate.”

The judge imposed an Oct. 23 deadline for Coria to surrender for his jail sentence.

Coria, who was arrested May 9 and placed on administrative leave from the church, originally faced three felony counts of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor and one misdemeanor count of oral copulation with a minor. Yolo County prosecutors said the pair’s physical relationship began in September 2013, when the alleged victim was a 16-year-old church altar girl.

On the day the girl was to have her testimony video-recorded for future use in the case, Coria agreed to plead guilty to one of the felony charges.

In light of the June 27 plea, “we have taken steps to remove him from the priesthood,” Kevin Eckery, spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, said in a phone interview Friday. “We expect authorities in Rome to approve.”

That process, which is a legal proceeding under Canon law, typically takes several months, according to Eckery.

“Father Coria’s behavior with the minor was a crime and a sin,” Eckery said. “He will now be held to account for his behavior.”

Prior to Friday’s sentencing, Coria’s defense attorney Linda Parisi read aloud a letter from the alleged victim, who has left Davis to attend college. The girl also delivered a statement in court on the day Coria entered into his plea agreement, saying their relationship was consensual and she did not want the matter prosecuted in court.

In her letter, the teen said her dreams of pursuing a law-enforcement career were “shattered” as a result of the way Davis police and Yolo County prosecutors overzealously handled the investigation, which began when an acquaintance of the girl reported the relationship.

“I was not abused. I did not need or want protection,” the girl’s letter said. “I am not a victim of Hector Coria. I am a victim of the process.”

Coria, who listened to Friday’s proceedings with the aid of a Spanish-language interpreter, appeared to be overcome with emotion as Parisi read the letter, in which the girl praised Coria for his work in the Davis community.

She also urged the court to not impose jail time for Coria, a request that Parisi said should be granted under Marsy’s Law, also known as the California Victims’ Bill of Rights Act.

“That law was passed because sometimes the (legal) process can be very damaging to an individual,” Parisi said. The girl “has made it absolutely clear what is the best way for her to move on with her life.”

But Deputy District Attorney Diane Ortiz said her office took significant steps to incorporate the girl’s wishes into the process, including bringing just four charges against Coria when prosecutors had sufficient evidence to file several dozen — one for each alleged sexual act, she said.

“We simply charged him for one act in each location (a house, a car and the church rectory) … based on the wishes of the victim and her family,” Ortiz said. “To say that we did not take into consideration the victim’s voice is simply wrong.”

She added: “The justice system would not have needed to intervene if this 45-year-old man had acted in an appropriate way. He was the adult in the relationship, and it has been disheartening to see the blame shifted to her.”

— Reach Lauren Keene at [email protected] or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter at @laurenkeene

Lauren Keene

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