Ogden Priest Charged With Enticing Minor on the Net

By Stephen Hunt
Salt Lake Tribune [Ogden UT]
Downloaded May 17, 2003

A 44-year-old Catholic priest who claims he was conducting research during an online sex chat with a police officer posing as a 15-year-old boy was charged Friday with enticing a minor over the Internet.

Mario Arbelaez Olarte -- an assistant pastor at Ogden's St. Joseph's Catholic Church -- allegedly posed as a 20-year-old man when he entered a chat room at late Wednesday night and met a female sheriff's officer, who was posing as a boy.

Officer Janice VanOrden of the Northern Utah Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (ICAC) and the priest exchanged fictitious ages, then chatted about their sexual preferences, police said.

Within minutes, the two agreed to rendezvous several blocks from the church, where Arbelaez Olarte has private living quarters and was operating his computer, police said.

Arbelaez Olarte was arrested when he arrived for the meeting at the corner of 25th Street and Adams Avenue. He was booked into the Weber County Jail, then released on his own recognizance.

Weber County Attorney Mark DeCaria said Arbelaez Olarte was charged with a class A misdemeanor based on the age of the fabricated victim. The crime carries a potential maximum sentence of 1 year in jail.

Had the officer been posing as a 13-year-old, Arbelaez Olarte could have been charged with a harsher second-degree felony, which is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Weber County sheriff's Lt. Klint Anderson said the priest told officers he was researching the dangers of the Internet in preparation for an upcoming presentation to a youth group.

Anderson said cybersex suspects often claim they are merely "checking out" chat rooms. He called Arbelaez Olarte's research claim "a new twist."

The content of the computer seized by police may help refute or confirm the priest's explanation for entering the Web site.

"The county attorney will be looking at the context of the conversation," said Anderson, adding that the computer also could yield evidence of other online conversations with minors.

Arbelaez Olarte could not be reached for comment Friday.

In a Thursday interview with the Standard-Examiner, he denied his intention was to have sexual contact with the boy.

"I am very embarrassed and sad," he told the Ogden paper. "But I accept that I committed a wrong . . . This is a lesson for me. I accept responsibility."

Monsignor Terrence Fitzgerald of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City said Friday that Arbelaez Olarte was immediately placed on administrative leave and may not function as a priest.

He said the St. Joseph's pastor, the Rev. Colin Bircumshaw, had told Arbelaez Olarte to be careful about speaking publicly about the case, and that he needs to be represented by an attorney.

"We don't want him making foolish statements," Fitzgerald said, noting that Arbelaez Olarte does not speak English well. He added that Arbelaez Olarte was not involved in St. Joseph School, which is affiliated with the parish, except to occasionally celebrate Mass.

Anderson said Northern Utah ICAC's half-dozen officers have been spending more and more time on the Internet.

"They're discovering an awful lot of this going on," he said. "The anonymity of the Internet apparently breeds boldness."

Lt. Ken Hansen, director of the ICAC task force and an investigator for the Utah Attorney General's Office, said 44 Internet predators, known as "travelers," were arrested last year. This year police have arrested 19 for trying to entice minors over the Internet.

Fitzgerald said church leaders would cooperate fully with investigators: "Our diocesan policies regarding sexual misconduct, as well as the principles in the U.S. Bishops 2002 charter for the protection of children and young people, will determine our course of action in regard to Father Arbelaez."

After the national sexual abuse scandal engulfed the Catholic Church in 2002, the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference adopted strict new procedures for preventing, reporting and punishing sexual abuse.

In response, the Utah diocese convened a board to review every allegation of sexual abuse by priests or staff members, and to analyze its policies regarding protection of minors and its own handling of such cases.

Tribune news editor Peg McEntee contributed to this report.


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