Left by Her Husband, Hurt by Her Church
Efrain Lopez Returned to the Priesthood in 1992, Leaving His Wife of 20 Years $60,000 in Debt

By Caryle Murphy
March 17, 2003

Frances Lopez was 26 and a schoolteacher when she married Efrain Lopez on June 23, 1972. He was a 35-year-old civil servant who'd left the Roman Catholic priesthood the year before and asked Rome for a release from his priestly vows. Though the Vatican's formal reply had not yet arrived -- it came six months later -- a priest presided at the couple's wedding.

Twenty years, two children and several failed business ventures later, Lopez decided to return to the priesthood. He divorced his wife, who was earning $22,000 a year, and told the judge that he could not afford to pay alimony on a church salary.

Without ever speaking with Frances Lopez, the Vatican approved her former husband's reinstatement as a priest. He is now acting pastor of a parish in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where some members are under the impression that he is a widower.

For Frances Lopez, who now lives in Woodbridge and teaches at a Prince William County public school, the shock of her husband's decision and the anger of her children at his departure was compounded by a decade of struggle to pay off a marital debt of more than $60,000 that forced her into bankruptcy.

Most of all, Lopez said, she is wounded by the apparent indifference to her and her family displayed by leaders of a church that she grew up in but no longer attends.

"I want the church and my ex-husband to accept the fact that they took him back without any investigation, never contacting myself, my daughter, friends or acquaintances, investigating his creditors or making any kind of provision for me after a 20-year marriage," Lopez said. "The church was so desperate to take him back that they completely ignored my position. . . . I feel I have been wronged, and I think this is so unjust."

Reached at his parish of Stella Maris, Efrain Lopez said the church had no obligation to interview his wife before reinstating him because their wedding occurred before he was released from his vows. As far as the church is concerned, he said, theirs was not a valid union.

Lopez, who was reinstated in 1996, added that "the church has nothing to do with my marriage. . . . I'm a validly ordained priest. . . . This is Monday morning quarterbacking." He accused his former wife of "looking for a way to get money from the church."

San Juan Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves could not be reached last week because he was traveling, his spokesman said. But in an interview, the archdiocese's judicial vicar, the Rev. Luis O. Capacetti, agreed with Lopez's view that his marriage was valid under civil but not church law. "When the case was referred to me, I talked to the bishop," Capacetti said, "I told him this is under civil law. The place to make a claim is under civil law jurisdiction."

For some, the Lopez saga illustrates why the Catholic Church, a huge, hierarchical institution, sometimes is viewed as overly protective of its clergy and insensitive to those who claim they have been wronged by a priest -- a view reinforced by last year's child sexual abuse scandal.

"It's clearly another example of the church leaders not taking responsibility for the behavior and conduct of its priests," said Barbara Blaine, founder of Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, a victims' advocacy group. "If he's going to work as a priest, he still has to pay his debts from before when he was married."

Reinstating priests who were once married is not unusual, but normally the man is first required to meet all moral and financial obligations and, if he was married in the church, to get an annulment, said the Rev. Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, an organization representing priests.

"It is true that the [Lopez] marriage was not sacramental because he had not been dispensed from the priesthood before he was married," Silva said. "However, I don't know of any case where the church hasn't taken very seriously the obligation of the individual to his wife and children before they consider reinstating. . . . You don't do any good by victimizing people in that way. It's not ethical."

The early 1970s were tumultuous times in the Roman Catholic Church. Longstanding rules were being challenged. Nuns were leaving convents and men exiting the priesthood, often to marry. In this atmosphere, Puerto Rican-born Efrain Lopez, ordained in 1965 in the Redemptorist order, met his future wife, who was teaching in a Catholic school in San Juan.

Several months after Lopez stopped working as a priest, the couple asked their friend, Thomas Slymon, then a Redemptorist priest and pastor of a church, to marry them. Slymon, who is now married and living in Illinois, said that he agreed even though the Vatican's reply to Lopez's dispensation request had not yet arrived.

Slymon said that, as he had instructed, his parish formally entered the marriage into the church rolls when the Vatican document arrived in December 1972.

Frances Lopez said that she has always relied on her marriage certificate, signed by the Rev. Antonio Hernandez, as evidence that the church sanctioned her marriage. "It has the church seal on it," she said. "All these years I thought we were officially married in the church. . . . I had to submit a marriage certificate to have my children baptized."

Slymon said he believed that the church should regard the marriage as legitimate. "If the leadership in the church has a cold, dead heart, you could take the line that the marriage was not valid," he said. "But boy, oh boy, that's really cutting it fine. I would say they are validly married. There's got to be a little give in this."

Frances Lopez said that during their marriage her husband held several jobs, including assignments with the U.S. State Department in Mexico and Trinidad. He also tried, unsuccessfully, to start several businesses. After they settled in Miami, she said, he began spending a lot of time with other priests.

"As soon as things became very complicated in married life, he thought to go back to the priesthood," she said. "He didn't like worrying about fixing the car or mowing the grass or all the normal things a husband does."

This upset her children, she said. "It's pretty hard when your dad is out in the garage practicing a sermon he never gets to give or spending lot of time with priests."

Lopez moved out in December 1990 and began doing consulting work for the Archdiocese of Miami, his ex-wife said.

A month after their July 1992 divorce, Frances Lopez lost all her household goods when Hurricane Andrew devastated her rented apartment. She also began to be hounded by creditors for more than $60,000 in credit card debt, most of which she said was from her ex-husband's failed business ventures.

Sometimes unable to locate him and unable to pay the debts, she declared bankruptcy in 1996, ruining her credit for seven years. And for three years, Lopez said, her federal income tax refunds were seized to pay back taxes on a North Miami Beach apartment that her husband bought without her knowledge and then defaulted on.

At the divorce, the judge ordered Lopez to pay $345 a month in child support for the couple's youngest child, 15-year-old Ricardo, who later was killed in an October 1993 car crash. "He paid that three-quarters of the time, not all of it," Frances Lopez said.

The couple's other child, Michelle, now 29, lives in Pennsylvania, where she works and attends college part time. Her father once gave her $4,000 to help her buy a car and, for the past year, has given her $500 a month because "she asked him for it," Frances Lopez said.

"I've been at times desperate, trying to take care of the children and make ends meet," she said. Her former husband occasionally helped her with small amounts of money, she said, but only after a confrontation.

"Every time I've asked him for something, I've had to threaten him and he would cough up the money," she said.

Efrain Lopez, whose monthly salary is $1,100, said that he has helped his wife financially "whenever she has been in need" and sends money to his daughter. He said that the credit card debts "were not from my business. That was to supplement family costs. . . . We both are responsible for those debts. It was for the benefit of the family."

Frances Lopez said she did not pursue her husband in the courts because she could not afford a lawyer and because she feared losing her teaching job at a Miami Catholic school.

But in 2001, she moved to Virginia and, for the first time in her career, got a job outside the Catholic school system.

According to a one-page document provided by Efrain Lopez's attorney, the Vatican reinstated Lopez as a priest in the Diocese of Caguas in Puerto Rico on Oct. 7, 1996.

"I can't understand how the church would take back a man after 25 years outside of active ministry without a trace of an investigation, a single question," said Frank G. Hoerner of Woodbridge, a former priest who was best man at the couple's wedding and remains a friend of Frances Lopez's. "His wife was never asked anything. He could have been pedophile, a robber -- they never investigated him."

Last year, Hoerner wrote to Caguas Bishop Ruben Antonio Gonzalez on Frances Lopez's behalf. The bishop wrote back telling him to contact the Archdiocese of San Juan, where Lopez now works. Frances Lopez then wrote to San Juan Archbishop Gonzalez.

Despite "many wonderful years and experiences" with her husband, Lopez told the bishop, she regarded it as "unchristian" that during "20 years of marriage, two people incurred debt, yet only one is forced to repay those debts while the other totally lives as if oblivious of the same!"

In his reply, the San Juan bishop said that he "was unaware of any possible complications involving" her "past relationship" with his priest. In any event, he said, his archdiocese "has no juridical competence in this matter."

A reporter asked Capacetti, the archdiocese's judicial vicar, whether there is a moral issue involved even if the church has no legal obligation in the case.

"You got a good point here," he replied. "For that reason, I make this invitation not to give up and to continue to reclaim what I think is obviously a moral situation. This is not a concluded situation. Tell her to continue. I will be very glad to help her."

Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.