Attorneys for a Puerto Rico diocese that defrocked six priests facing sex abuse allegations said Friday in court that they oppose a criminal investigation into the cases because the majority involved consensual sex.
Diocese attorneys said the priests were defrocked for violating canon law, not criminal laws.
Consensual sex "does not constitute any type of crime," attorney Frank Torres said.
The argument was one of several presented to a judge reviewing a lawsuit that the Diocese of Arecibo filed against the U.S. territory's justice secretary. The names of the alleged victims have not been released to seek comment from.
In the suit, the diocese contends that it should not be forced to release their names to prosecutors in order to protect their confidentiality.
Prosecutor Claudia Juan Garcia accused the diocese of withholding information to protect the priests, not the alleged victims.
"It's not up to the church to decide which acts constitute a crime," she said. "It's up to the state."
She noted that even though the church had defrocked the priests, they could still pose a threat to society in general.
The diocese has provided the ages of the alleged victims, the names of the accused priests and the dates and description of the alleged actions, said diocese attorney Jose Andreu Fuentes. He did not publicly reveal the ages.
He said that even though the sex was consensual in the majority of cases, the alleged victims confided in church officials because "spiritually, they had to denounce this."
Torres said the statute of limitations already expired for two of the cases, and that state prosecutors previously investigated at least one other case and nothing came of it.
In the U.S. mainland, several church leaders accused of shielding pedophile priests from prosecution have faced criminal charges.
A monsignor was convicted in Philadelphia, although a state appeals court threw out the conviction last year. Meanwhile, a Kansas City bishop was found guilty last year of failing to report child abuse to the state, but he remains head of his diocese.
And in one of the most high-profile cases, internal files released by the nation's largest Roman Catholic archdiocese showed that Cardinal Roger Mahony in Los Angeles ordered an underling to withhold a list of altar boys from police. Authorities later found that 25 of the alleged victims of fugitive Rev. Nicolas Aguilar Rivera were altar boys.
The archdiocese also agreed to pay $720 million to victims, announcing a final $13 million settlement on Wednesday, thus avoiding a trial.
In Puerto Rico, the lawsuit hearing drew a crowd of diocese officials and their supporters, the majority of whom wore large rosaries and hugged diocese officials during courtroom breaks.
Before judge Angel Pagan announced that the hearing would be continued in early March, he told attorneys for the diocese that he would protect the confidentiality of witnesses on a case-by-case basis. Pagan also said that one of the alleged victims who recently requested that his personal information not be turned over to prosecutors would be allowed to join the lawsuit.
The ruling was celebrated by attorney Manuel Martinez, who said his 23-year-old unidentified client was working and studying and did not want to be forced into the spotlight.
"He has a peaceful life," Martinez said. "Almost 10 years have gone by."
Prosecutors also are investigating sex abuse allegations that recently surfaced in the Diocese of Mayaguez in Puerto Rico's western region. The diocese said it has handled four cases of alleged sex abuse, and that the majority are being reviewed by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handles such accusations.