GRANGER, Wash. -- A Catholic priest in the Yakima Diocese has been permanently removed from public ministry by Bishop Joseph Tyson.

The diocese reported Monday morning that the Rev. Gustavo Gómez Santos, who was pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Granger, was removed after a man accused him of sexually abusing him when he was a minor.

The abuse was reported by a 21-year-old former Mattawa resident who said Gómez had forcibly fondled him five or six years ago when Gómez was serving in the St. Juan Diego Parish in Cowiche.

The man reported the abuse to the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office, which alerted the diocese. The priest has been on leave since May 5.

After a church investigation, Tyson deemed the allegation credible.

Gómez, 51, who is from Guadalajara, Mexico, was ordained in Yakima in 2002. He has denied the allegations.

Being removed from public ministry means Gómez cannot celebrate Mass publicly, perform sacraments, wear clerical clothing or identify himself as a priest. He can still say Mass privately, pray and attend gatherings made up solely of priests, such as retreats. He is living in a supervised setting.

Tyson was traveling on an airplane Monday to attend a bishops’ conference in Indianapolis and couldn’t be reached for comment.

Monsignor Robert Siler, chancellor of the diocese, said the young man is receiving counseling. “Our main concern is for the victim,” Siler said.

Gómez’s credibility was undermined by admissions that he violated the diocese’s code of conduct, including giving alcohol to minors, giving and receiving massages to and from minors, giving them expensive gifts, including trips to Disneyland, and allowing them to stay overnight in his residence in several parishes, the diocese said.

A former close friend of the alleged victim said the young man had told him about the abuse when they were still teens. Other men have reported that they received gifts, massages and other inappropriate attention from the priest as teenagers, the diocese said.

Siler said the victim reported the alleged abuse at this time “because he’s come to understand how the abuse has affected him.”

Other parishioners who may have been concerned by Gómez’s behavior toward teens didn’t come forward because they said the priest made it seem “normal,” Siler noted. “My sense is, especially in the Hispanic community, you just don’t question the priest. If you see a priest being kind and generous, it’s easy to overlook normal concerns.”

The sheriff’s office determined that it wouldn’t be able to prosecute the case due to the statute of limitations, which is three years for the offense of forcible fondling, Siler said.

Since his ordination, Gómez has served in six other parishes in the diocese in addition to Granger: Grandview, Mabton, East Wenatchee, Benton City, Mattawa and Cowiche.

At the time of his removal he also was serving the Spanish Mass at Immaculate Conception Parish in Mabton. On Sunday, Siler met with parishioners at the Granger and Mabton churches to explain the allegation.

“There was a lot of shock, A lot of folks feel that the priest is innocent,” Siler said. “It’s going to take the parishes some time to bounce back.”

An associate priest will begin serving the parishes in July.

Tyson based his decision to remove Gómez on a church investigation coordinated by attorney Russ Mazzola who heads the diocese lay advisory board. That panel unanimously recommended that Gómez be removed. An attempt to reach Mazzola for comment was unsuccessful.

Tyson will participate in a special Mass on Wednesday to pray for victims of sexual abuse. He said in a news release that the diocese would “redouble its efforts to educate parishioners and priests on the reality of sexual abuse in the church and society.”

In the coming weeks, local parishes will be making announcements to encourage other victims to report any abuse, particularly in parishes served by Gómez.

Gómez has cooperated with the diocese’s investigation, including voluntarily surrendering his passports when he was first put on leave last month.

The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will review the case to determine if Gómez should remain permanently removed from ministry, or if the case should be sent back to Yakima for a church trial or other proceedings. A church trial would involve priests and lay people who are experts in canon, or church, law, examining evidence, Siler said. If they found compelling evidence 
that Gómez is not guilty, 
they could recommend that Tyson reinstate him to the ministry.

“But one accusation that is found credible, a priest is out of ministry,” Siler said.

Siler encouraged anyone with concerns about alleged abuse by any personnel in the Catholic church to call the diocese’s sexual abuse reporting hotline, 1-888-276-4490.

“With Christ as our rock, we will get through this,” he said.