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Priest in Puerto Rico charged with sexually abusing altar boy

By Rafael Romo, Senior Latin American Affairs Editor
updated 3:36 PM EDT, Wed May 14, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Israel Berrios Berrios, 58, arrested in Puerto Rico
  • Berrios allegedly gained mother's trust before allegedly abusing 14-year-old boy
  • Berrios: "I am very much at peace"

(CNN) -- U.S. authorities Tuesday arrested a Roman Catholic priest in Puerto Rico on charges he sexually abused an altar boy.

U.S. Homeland Security agents arrested Israel Berrios Berrios, 58, at his residence in the Puerto Rican town of Naranjito. The Caribbean island of Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory.

ICE press release on arrest

At a press conference after the arrest, Angel Melendez, a Puerto Rico-based special agent for Homeland Security Investigations, part of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, alleged that Berrios was able to sexually abuse the minor after gaining the trust of the boy's mother over several years.

By 2008, Berrios "was already considered part of (the alleged victim's) family," Melendez said.

"He convinced the (alleged victim's) mother to give the young man permission to go on a cruise to the Bahamas," on which Berrios shared a cabin with the boy, Melendez said.

According to the federal indictment obtained by CNN, Berrios used a car connected to the local San Jose parish to transport the alleged victim knowing the young man "would engage in a commercial sex act."

The indictment includes four charges: two counts of sex trafficking of children and another two counts of transportation of a minor with intent to engage in prostitution and criminal sexual activity. Two of the charges stem from the alleged trip to Bahamas.

Agent Melendez also said the alleged abuse happened in 2007, when the alleged victim was 14 years old. The minor was serving as altar boy at San Jose's Church in the Puerto Rican town of Aibonito. Berrios was the parish priest and also a director at a Catholic school there.

As he was led by federal agents into a detention center in San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, Berrios told a reporter from WAPA, a CNN affiliate, that his conscience is clear.

"I'm very much at peace. Our Lord Jesus lived moments like this and I believe that even though my hands and feet are shackled, there are other people who are prisoners of their own conscience. That's what I can tell you," Berrios said.

Monsignor Ruben Gonzalez, bishop of the Caguas Diocese, suspended Berrios last year when the allegations first surfaced, but the priest has yet to be expelled.

"I confronted the facts and called the priest and asked him if it was true what was being said. He admitted it and asked for forgiveness for the situation," Gonzalez said.

This is the first time U.S. federal authorities have prosecuted a priest in a pedophilia case in Puerto Rico. Gonzalez said he fears there are other victims.

"It might be entirely possible that now that the name of this priest has been made public other people will step forward. I urge them, with humility, if there are other victims, to speak up," Gonzalez said.

If convicted, Berrios faces 10 years to life in prison.

CNN en Espanol's Dania Alexandrino contributed to this report.

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