Former priest accused of trying to hire hit man

By The Associated Press

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — In a murder-for-hire case worthy of a Dan Brown novel, a Roman Catholic priest has been arrested on charges that he solicited a hit man to kill a teenager who had accused him of sexual abuse.

Authorities said John Fiala first offered the job to a neighbor, who blew the whistle and helped police arrange a sting. They said Fiala got as far as negotiating a $5,000 price for the slaying before investigators moved in.

The 52-year-old clergyman was arrested Nov. 18 at his suburban Dallas home and jailed on $700,000 bond. In April, he was named in a lawsuit filed by the boy’s family, who accused Fiala of molesting the youth, including twice forcing him to have sex at gunpoint.

The abuse allegedly took place in 2007 and 2008, when Fiala was a priest at the Sacred Heart of Mary Parish in the West Texas community of Rocksprings, a rural enclave known for sheep and goat herding.

The family’s lawsuit also named the Archdiocese of San Antonio and Archbishop Jose Gomez, alleging that church leadership should have known Fiala was abusive.

The suit was filed just a month before Gomez was introduced as the new incoming leader of the Los Angeles Archdiocese. He is currently serving as an assistant to Cardinal Roger Mahony, who will retire next year. Gomez then automatically becomes archbishop.

The allegations against Fiala seemed like they could have formed a plotline for Brown, who wrote “The Da Vinci Code” and other religiously themed thrillers. But the accuser’s attorney said they hit too close to home.

When he learned of the murder-for-hire investigation, the boy “was terrified and rightly so,” attorney Tom Rhodes said. As far back as 2008, Fiala threatened the teen, and repeatedly brandished a pistol, Rhodes said.

Fiala “began saying, ‘If you tell anyone, I’ll hurt you, I’ll hurt your family, your girlfriend,'” Rhodes said. “It was more than once he threatened him with a gun.”

Fiala only recently rented a place to live in suburban Garland, where police say he initiated the attempted contract killing — even though his new home is more than 300 miles northeast of Rocksprings.

Rhodes said an anonymous informant who initially identified himself as a neighbor of Fiala contacted his office and said the priest had approached him about killing the accuser, who was 16 at the time and is now in his late teens. Rhodes urged the informant to contact the police, who then sent an undercover agent to meet with Fiala.

Rhodes said he had been told Fiala offered $5,000 to carry out the slaying. A spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety said he could not confirm the amount of money involved.

It was unclear how close Fiala came to actually putting his plan in motion or how he wanted the boy killed. A call to the Edwards County Sheriff’s Office, which headed up the investigation, was not immediately returned.

Jail records list Fiala’s attorney as Rex Gunter in Dallas, but he was in court Tuesday and did not return a call from The Associated Press. Fiala is charged with one count of solicitation to commit capital murder and two counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child.

San Antonio Archdiocese spokesman Pat Rodgers said Fiala has been removed from the public ministry, meaning he cannot present himself as a priest.

Authorities removed him in October 2008, before the accusations of sexual assault emerged, because of his interference with the custodial relationship between the teen in Rocksprings and his grandmother — a case the sheriff’s office investigated. Authorities have not disclosed the nature of Fiala’s interference.

“We were shocked by the allegations and saddened by the story,” Rodgers said. Since Fiala was removed from the public ministry, “we haven’t contacted him, and haven’t had any reason to contact him.”

Rhodes said Fiala originally met the accuser in 2007 and was a frequent visitor at his grandparents’ house, where the teen was living. He often came bearing gifts, including new a cell phone and MP3 player, and eventually gave the boy cash to help buy a car.

Fiala used the pretext of private catechism lessons to be alone with the boy, Rhodes said, and in 2008 took the teen to a youth event in the town of San Angelo, Texas, during which he raped him in a motel room at gunpoint.

“He’s a dangerous predator and has been since at least 1988,” Rhodes said. “The church has known how dangerous this guy is for many, many years. They had full knowledge, we believe, and the documents seem to bear that out — that they knew what a bad person he was and what a danger he was to children.”