After reading Sacramento Bee columnist Marco Breton’s hang ’em high column yesterday regarding the death penalty, I decided to reread three columns he wrote on the Rev. Uriel Ojeda in 2012 and 2013. I did this because I recalled a tone of empathy and sadness in those columns for a 33-year-old priest who committed despicable crimes upon a 13-year-old girl.
The three columns dwell on the downfall of a popular, charismatic Catholic priest. The headlines say things such as “Human flaws test devotion”; “Former ‘rock star’ priest facing trial as solitary figure”; and “Priest’s downfall a tragedy of faith, delusion and denial.”
Ojeda was charged in late 2011 with sexually abusing a girl beginning when she was 13 years old. The abuse began, according to the girl’s family, when he was a guest at their home and a parish priest in Woodland. It continued over a period of years. Ojeda was sentenced last July to an eight-year term and sent off to prison.
When the charges were announced, many parishioners loyal to Ojeda flocked to the courthouse to show their support and decry the persecution of their beloved priest. Some sang and chanted on a street corner near the county jail in hopes Ojeda would hear them, Breton noted.
Breton also acknowledged that he special feelings for Ojeda because the priest prayed over Breton’s father the night before he died. “The moment Ojeda spent with my family will remain sacred with us forever, irrespective of his legal fate,” Breton wrote.
In a July 2013 column, Breton points out the attorney Jesse Ortiz, “who represents Ojeda and is one of the best criminal defense lawyers in Sacramento, is seeking to have Ojeda’s statements to diocesan officials barred from evidence as privileged information.”
Breton exhibits here none of the disdain he extends in yesterday’s column toward death-penalty lawyers whose “frivolous legal delays” and “legal manipulations” make the death penalty system flawed, in his view.
While understanding toward Ojeda’s frailties, Breton turned a blind eye to the plight of his victim, who surely was being ostracized by the congregation. He made no effort to tell her story of abuse and exploitation and possibly “acts that cannot be detailed in a family newspaper.”
Contrast that indifference with Breton’s denunciation of the “unspeakable crimes” committed upon a Yuba City boy in the mid-1990s, crimes “too gruesome for a family newspaper” and ones committed by a serial predator Breton views as evil and beyond rehabilitation.
While one could debate where to place Ojeda’s actions on a scale of depravity, it’s instructive to note that some lawmakers view the death penalty as appropriate in cases of sexual abuse of children.
The view of evil gets so darn arbitrary it’s hard to know where to begin or with whom. Breton envisages reforming the death penalty “so it stops being arbitrary and inefficient,” but would he be so enthusiastic if some prosecutor thought Ojeda’s crimes deserved the ultimate punishment? Ojeda already got the short end of the arbitrary stick when he became one of the few convicted priests to get a prison sentence.
Maybe when evil hits closer to home, one comes to understand the complexities of human beings and our flawed justice system. Still, Breton would do well to look beyond his acquaintances and ponder the inequities of our entire social system, one in which the poor and uneducated are targeted for death row far more than the upper classes. They deserve equal protection under the law, and all the time that takes.