New bishop to take over Diocese of Fresno, as church remains embroiled in scandal

New bishop for Diocese of Fresno named as Ochoa retires

Rev. Armando X. Ochoa announced Rev. Joseph V. Brennan as the new bishop for the Diocese of Fresno at a news conference Tuesday morning, March 5, 2019. Brennan takes over May 1.
Up Next
Rev. Armando X. Ochoa announced Rev. Joseph V. Brennan as the new bishop for the Diocese of Fresno at a news conference Tuesday morning, March 5, 2019. Brennan takes over May 1.

Rev. Joseph V. Brennan will take the reins of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno in May amid a large-scale sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church and an ongoing investigation in the diocese.

Brennan will succeed Bishop Armando Ochoa, who has served in that position for seven years. Brennan will be the sixth bishop of the diocese when he takes over the day-to-day leadership duties May 2.

The diocese made an official announcement Tuesday during a news conference.

Ochoa said he turned 75 last April — retirement age for Catholic leaders — and submitted his resignation letter to Rome, as advised under the Code of Canon Law.

He spent 32 years serving as bishop.

“I think it’s wise,” Ochoa said of the retirement age limit after the news conference. “We need new blood.”

Brennan has been an auxiliary bishop to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles since 2015.

Rev. Joseph V. Brennan addresses the media after being introduced by Rev. Armando Ochoa as his replacement for the Diocese of Fresno Tuesday morning, March 5, 2019 in Fresno. Ochoa is retiring after reaching the age of 75, a standard practice according to Ochoa. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

Brennan acknowledged the challenges facing the Catholic church as he assumes a leadership role amid a sexual abuse scandal. “I bring a spirit of joy to the table in the midst of crisis, in the midst of pain,” Brennan said after the news conference.

The Diocese of Fresno, which serves an estimated 1.2 million Catholics across eight counties in the Central Valley, has an ongoing investigation to review records dating back to 1922, after which it will release names of priests accused of sexual misconduct.

Ochoa first raised the issue last September, and soon after began discussions with a diocese’s Review Board. While Catholic dioceses across the country have already begun to release the names of priests who have been accused of sexual abuse, Ochoa has maintained the diocese will not do that, until a thorough review is completed.

Brennan said he would only speed up the investigation, “if it will help.”

“Honestly, it needs to be done well — we can’t use that as an excuse to drag our feet (be)cause that can happen, too,” he said after the press conference. “So yes, full speed ahead, only if it helps.”

The review needs to be diligent, detailed and it has to “observe due diligence for everyone -- the victims, the accused and all of us.” Brennan said he also believes in having a relationship and trust with law enforcement.

Four priests in the diocese are on administrative leave, pending ongoing investigations, Ochoa said. The fourth priest is Father Miguel Flores of Bakersfield.

The Rev. Armando Ochoa is interviewed about sexual abuse cases at the Diocese of Fresno Tuesday morning, March 5, 2019 in Fresno. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

Teresa Dominguez, chancellor for the diocese, said Flores, who was serving at St. Joseph Church, was placed on paid administrative leave on Feb. 28. That was “due to a recent report from a third party that related to the 2002 case where he was acquitted.”

“Although, this has already been criminally processed it still requires a diocesan investigation,” she wrote in an email. “The current third party disclosures were reported to law enforcement.”

In October, the diocese acknowledged it was investigating three of its priests after complaints were submitted to the diocese. They include Father Jean-Michael Lastiri, Father Ricardo Magdaleno and Father and Rev. Gaspar Bautista.

Lastiri and Magdaleno were placed on administrative leave on Sept. 13 and Sept. 28, respectively. Bautista has been on leave since March 2016.

The diocese lodged an investigation into Lastiri after complaints were brought to Ochoa’s attention involving material found on a YouTube account that was “considered to be scandalous.”

Lastiri had been in trouble in the past. In 2004, he was removed from St. Patrick’s Church in Merced after allegations surfaced that he was active on a homosexual dating website.

Magdaleno was placed on leave following a complaint from an adult, though the diocese has not made public details of what the complaint entailed. Bautista was placed on leave after the diocese was alerted by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles about allegations that Bautista was involved in inappropriate behavior with a minor during his time in LA.

Ochoa said those investigations are moving forward as the diocese is still conducting interviews. “There is always two sides to every story, and more than two sides to every story, so we want to make sure that due process takes place,” he said.

Law enforcement is not involved in all those four investigations, Ochoa said, but he declined to specify which ones do have law enforcement involvement. He said that information will be disclosed as soon as the diocese is able to make a public statement.

Ochoa encouraged victims to come forward. “This is the time to come forward,” he said. “I realize it’s always a shameful thing, but honestly, there’s an abuse of power that has taken place, and many, many times that is what the people are angry about, and not only angry about the sexual abuse, but the abuse of power.”

Joey Piscitelli, a child abuse victims advocate and leader in the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the Diocese of Fresno “needs to clean up its act.” He said Flores had been accused of sexual abuse involving a 16-year-old girl in the past, but was acquitted.

“Why wasn’t this priests removed before?” he asked. “Hopefully, the new bishop will be more sensible, and clean up the Diocese of Fresno — which seems to be going backwards in time as far as addressing the clergy abuse crisis wisely.”

The Bee was unable to reach Flores on Tuesday.

Bishop Armando X. Ochoa of the Diocese of Fresno speaks to the sex scandal in the Catholic Church/Fresno Diocese during a press conference at the Fresno Diocese on Friday, Feb. 1, 2019. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Yesenia Amaro: 559-441-6144, @YeseniaAmaro

Rev. Joseph V. Brennan bio

In his capacity at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Brennan served as the Episcopal Vicar of the San Fernando Pastoral Region, one of the five pastoral regions in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, according to a news release.

He received his bachelor’s degree in philosophy from St. John’s Seminary College in 1976 and a master’s degree in divinity from St. John’s Seminary Theologate in 1980.

After his ordination to the priesthood, he served as associate pastor at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Los Angeles, St. Linus in Norwalk and at the Cathedral of St. Vibiana in Los Angeles.

Later on, he was a pastor at St. Linus in Norwalk and Holy Trinity in San Pedro. After becoming vicar general and moderator of the curia, he was in residence at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and at Mother of Sorrows Catholic Church.

He has been a chaplain for the Knights of Columbus in California, a member of the Council of Priests and the College of Consultors of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and sat on the Board of the Catholic Education Foundation, Williams Charitable Trust, and Together in Mission, the release said.

Related stories from Fresno Bee

Yesenia Amaro covers immigration and diverse communities for The Fresno Bee. She previously worked for the Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia and the Las Vegas Review-Journal in Nevada. She recently received the 2018 Journalistic Integrity award from the CACJ. In 2015, she won the Outstanding Journalist of the Year Award from the Nevada Press Association, and also received the Community Service Award.