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October 25, 2014

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Puerto Rico priest faces federal sex charges

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — U.S. authorities in Puerto Rico on Tuesday arrested a Roman Catholic priest and former school director on charges including sexual trafficking of children in the first federal case of its kind in the U.S. territory.

Israel Berrios, 58, is accused of sexually abusing an altar boy from the time he was about 8 years old until he turned 17, according to Puerto Rico Justice Secretary Cesar Miranda.

"All this began with the seduction of material things," said Miranda, who alleged the boy was given money, a computer, a camera and was taken on a cruise. Miranda said the boy is now a 21-year-old university student.

The arrest is part of a probe into multiple church abuse allegations in the island of 3.6 million people, where more than 70 percent identify themselves as Catholic.

U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodriguez said the boy's mother had given him permission to take a four-day cruise to the Bahamas in July 2008 with Berrios and a married couple they knew from church.

The boy was raised by his mother and did not have a relationship with his father, which led to the priest becoming like a member of the family, said Angel Melendez, a Puerto Rico-based special agent for Homeland Security Investigations of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

"He is the only victim we have interviewed, but we don't dismiss that there might be others," Melendez said.

Berrios also had served as director of a Catholic school in the central town of Aibonito that the boy attended.

ICE spokesman Ivan Ortiz said Berrios was a priest in the Diocese of Caguas, south of the capital of San Juan. He said the priest was arrested in the northern town of Naranjito.

Puerto Rico prosecutors filed charges of lewd acts against Berrios, who has been suspended as a priest but not expelled.

Officials at the Diocese of Caguas said the bishop was not immediately available for comment, but Berrios himself told reporters he was at peace in a brief statement as he entered a courthouse.

"Although my hands and feet are handcuffed, there are other people who are imprisoned by their conscience," he said without elaborating.

Berrios is the first priest to face federal sex charges of this kind in Puerto Rico, though local prosecutors are investigating at least 17 other priests and eight dioceses facing similar allegations.

Prosecutors already have charged one of six defrocked priests from the Diocese of Arecibo with committing lewd acts. Edwin Antonio Mercado Viera is scheduled to appear in court in late May.

The Diocese of Arecibo is fighting a request from Puerto Rico's justice department to obtain confidential documents related to the sex abuse probe, and the island's Supreme Court recently agreed to hear the case. Officials of the diocese argue they have already provided sufficient information and seek to protect the identity of those who made the allegations.

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