Ex-priest gets prison for groping teen cancer patient

CLEVELAND, Ohio — A 77-year-old former Catholic priest is headed to prison for molesting a 15-year-old girl during a blessing before her upcoming cancer treatment.

Luis Barajas was sentenced on Tuesday to 15 months in prison after he pleaded guilty earlier this month to a fourth-degree felony, gross sexual imposition, tied to the October assault at the girl’s Westlake home.

“You admitted to sexually assaulting a child, which in and of itself is an absolutely horrendous crime,” Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Andrew Santoli said before announcing the sentence.

What made the crime worse, Santoli said, was that the girl’s family looked to him for spiritual guidance and support in the face of a long and difficult journey through chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

“You took advantage of that, and that warrants a serious consequence,” Santoli said.

A sheriff’s deputy escorted Barajas as he shuffled with a walking cane out of the courtroom and into a holding cell. Neither the girl nor her family attended the hearing or submitted written statements for Santoli to consider in handing down the sentence.

Barajas will get credit for more than three months he spent in the Cuyahoga County Jail after his arrest, meaning that he will spend just under a year in a state prison.

Barajas, who is originally from Colombia, asked for forgiveness from the girl and her family, as well as from God.

“I’d like to ask your honor if I could go to Colombia in order to live the remainder of my days there in the company of my family,” Barajas said.

Barajas was ordained as a priest in 1982 and assigned to a largely Spanish-speaking parish in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. However, the parish paid him $2,000 and sent him back to Colombia after receiving multiple allegations ranging from acting inappropriately around children in the parish to sexually abusing two youths, according to a grand jury report into the church’s handling of sexual abuse claims against priests.

The latest allegation against Barajas came in October from a priest at a parish in a West Side suburb.

Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Omar Siddiq said during the hearing Tuesday that Barajas befriended the girl’s family by speaking Spanish at the church last summer. The girl’s family also spoke Spanish and asked Barajas to perform a private blessing ceremony at their home on Oct. 10. She was set to begin her fourth round of cancer treatment the next day, Siddiq said.

The girl was also on 17 different medications that left her drowsy.

Barajas began rubbing the girl’s stomach that was bared by the cutoff shirt she was wearing. She then asked for a blanket because she was cold, and Barajas covered her up while he continued touching her, Siddiq said.

The blanket later fell down, and the man who had given Barajas a ride to the girl’s house saw Barajas’ hand reaching beneath her shirt and bra and fondling her breasts, Siddiq said.

The driver later told the pastor at the girl’s church, who reported the incident to police.

Siddiq read from a 2016 article in a news outlet dedicated to covering the Catholic Church. It said that a New York diocese in Brooklyn sent out an alert to its parishioners about Barajas’ prior allegations performing the same kinds of ceremonies there, which allowed him to “gain access to minors.”

“Please be advised that Father Barajas has no permission whatsoever to function in any way as a priest in the Diocese of Brooklyn,” the statement said, according to Siddiq.

Siddiq said the article showed a pattern of behavior in which Barajas abused his position both within the Catholic Church and the communities in which he has lived.

“Given the totality of this information, the fact that he has gone so long and is now being held to account for his behavior, the state believes a prison term of 18 months is the most appropriate sanction possible,” Siddiq said. “And we would implore the court to impose that time.”