When a priest is accused of abusing a minor, public opinion seldom gives him the benefit of the doubt — often for good reason.
But in Nicaragua, things are different. At least for Monsignor José Leonardo Urbina.
Urbina is pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish of Boaco, a city 50 miles east of Managua, the country’s capital. He was arrested on July 13 and formally accused of raping an adolescent girl.
And Urbina’s story is unlike most that begin with a priest arrested for sexual abuse — because Nicaraguan media outlets, and human rights activists –some of them fierce critics of the Catholic Church– have rallied behind Fr. Urbina, citing significant procedural irregularities and raising questions about whether the priest is receiving due process.
The allegation against the priest comes in the context of escalating daily persecution against the Catholic Church led by the regime of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.
Already in 2022, Nicaragua’s government expelled the Holy See’s apostolic nuncio, seized Church property that had been donated by the Taiwanese government, closed a Catholic TV station, persecuted priests and bishops, and condemned a priest, Fr. Manuel García, to four years in prison for allegedly hitting a woman, and then waving a machete to angry protestors outside his church.
The woman recanted the allegation and was promptly jailed for perjury.
García was a vocal critic of Ortega’s regime, loudly panning its abuses in his homilies and media appearances.
Urbina has not been as outspoken. But local Catholics in Boaco say the priest has been a beloved pastoral presence in his parish — and, perhaps more important, Urbina has been a ministerial presence for Nicaraguans facing political persecution, including activist Jaime Ampie, who spent a year in prison before going into exile.
The priest’s supporters say that Urbina’s arrest is a warning: few priests in Nicaragua can escape the risk of what they call unjust government persecution.
“In Nicaragua there are only a handful of priests that are known for supporting the dictatorship, and those who don’t belong to that group are a target and are always active in their homilies in exhortations against the dictatorship,” said Martha Molina, a Nicaraguan attorney and human rights activist, and author of the report “Nicaragua: ¿Una Iglesia Perseguida” [Nicaragua: A Persecuted Church?], which documented abuses against the Church between 2018 and 2022.
Some activists claim that Nicaragua seems to follow the pattern of dozens of authoritarian regimes which have persecuted the Catholic Church in recent decades.
In Central America, many priests and religious in El Salvador and Guatemala during the 1980s were jailed and murdered, including Saint Óscar Arnulfo Romero and Blessed Stanley Rother. Priests and seminarians were murdered during the Argentinian dictatorship in the 1970s under suspicion of being communists, and hundreds of priests, religious, and laypeople had to flee Cuba during the Castros revolution in the 1960s.
Of course, there have been serious cases of clerical sexual abuse in Nicaragua, most of which were widely covered in the country.
Among them was the case of Fr. Marco Dessi, condemned in Italy, his home country, for the abuse of six children in Nicaragua. The case was covered all across the media, and the priest was condemned by human rights advocates in the country.
But Urbina’s case is different, his supporters say. Human rights activists say there are serious procedural irregularities in his case, and discrepancies in the press, which raises questions about the legitimacy of the allegations against the priest.
According to Nicaraguan authorities, Urbina abused an adolescent girl between December 2021 and February of this year.
Some local media report that the accused priest was friends with the mother of the child — and that during an excursion to buy food, Urbina allegedly forced his victim to an isolated area and abused her. One media report says the prosecutor has “abundant” evidence of Urbina’s crime.
But critics of the prosecution noted that the news outlets reporting details about Urbina allegation are owned by two sons of President Ortega.
The priest is now incarcerated in Managua, and has been denied bail.
He appeared last month for his initial court hearing dressed as a common prisoner and escorted by police armed with AK rifles.
Prosecutors claim they will prove the allegations through witnesses, police expertise, and a report of the Legal Medicine Institute – controlled by the Ortega regime– in a trial that began July 29.
‘A media show?’
Molina told The Pillar last week that the case against Urbina is not simple.
Supporters of the priest note that the judge assigned to the trial, Edén Enrique Aguilar, is a well-known sympathizer of the Sandinista movement, led by president Daniel Ortega. On July 19 the judge posted on social media celebratory posts for the anniversary of the country’s “Sandinista Revolution.”
And Aguilar is not the only sympathizer of the regime linked to Urbina’s case.
The first attorney assigned to Urbina has also been identified as a supporter of Ortega and the Sandinistas.
Harry Valle appeared as Urbina’s counsel at the priest’s initial July 20 hearing.
In an odd move for a defense lawyer, Valle dedicated his time during the hearing to flattering the country’s judicial system instead, with almost no effort to defend his client against the accusations.
“The honorable Public Prosecutor's Office and its actions are governed within the framework of the law, my client’s rights and guarantees are being respected, the principle of legality of due process and the fundamental right to defense are being respected, so there is full confidence in the judiciary since it is the most important institution that guarantees peace, justice, legal certainty and the rule of law in our country," Valle said in court.
Even more unusual — immediately after the hearing, Valle quit, claiming that Urbina’s family had not paid him.
On his Facebook page, Valle claims to be an expert in “criminal law,” and shows himself to be a supporter of the Sandinista regime.
The attorney reposted a July 19 video celebrating the anniversary of the Sandinista revolution, posted a photo of himself on a moped during a celebration march, and has posted pictures in which appears wearing clothes that refer to his support for the Sandinista regime.
Valle’s role in the case has raised suspicion among some human rights activists.
Among them is attorney Yader Morazán, who claims that Valle has committed procedural fraud by simulating a defense for Urbina.
Morazán charges that Valle’s legal practice is corrupt.
“Valle is a private lawyer who is known to sell illusions to his clients. He is recommended [to defendants] by policemen to whom he leaves a percentage of his earnings, and who likes to litigate with the FSLN [the ruling party] flag, believing that in that way he will gain advantages,” the lawyer told Nicaragua Investiga.
“The priest’s family was sold ambitious promises. When people have a loved one in prison they can easily fall prey to a scam — this is how [Valle] reached the process,” Morazán told The Pillar.
“He committed procedural fraud because he did not exercise a defense role, he just flattered the judicial system and did not even make an even vague mention of the accusations he must respond to during the hearing. Then, he deliberately quit after the audience, leaving his client totally defenseless,” the lawyer added.
Valle could not be reached for comment.
After Valle quit the case, Urbina was notified that he’d be permitted to designate an attorney before the July 29 start of his trial, in accord with Nicaraguan law.
But before the priest settled on a lawyer, Judge Aguilar changed his mind, and assigned Urbina a public defender.
Morazán said the situation exemplifies a pattern of injustice in Nicaraguan courts.
“First, there is a lawyer who resigns because he says that he was not paid, then another lawyer arrives whom the relatives reject, and then a public defender appears. In view of this discrepancy, the healthiest thing to do was for the judge to keep the date of the hearing so that the accused could decide in communication with his relatives who will be the lawyer that will defend him.”
“But these cases are handled with much secrecy, and defendants are left helpless, without effective communication with their families and their legal representation, and, at the end of the day, a lawyer who is not totally trusted by the defendant is imposed,” Morazán, who worked for five years in a court of violence against women, told The Pillar.
For her part, activist Molina also raised questions about the trial venue.
“If the alleged crime was committed in Boaco and he was arrested in that same region, then a judge in Boaco should have heard his case. But the first hearing was held in the courts of Managua, the capital, where he was remanded in custody,” Molina told The Pillar.
Molina also said that prosecutors and the case’s judge allowed the priest’s alleged victim to be identified by trial-watchers, a violation of Nicaraguan law. The alleged victim’s mother was permitted to appear at Urbina’s initial hearing, to ask that the priest receive the maximum prison sentence for his alleged crimes.
“This process is a media show, where they have violated all the rights of the minor who was allegedly raped; because she has been exposed to the media by the judicial system acting against the provisions of the Code of Childhood and Adolescence who should protect her,” Molina told The Pillar.
“[H]istorically this has never been seen in Nicaragua: a deliberate intention to make a media show in a trial involving a minor. The courts specializing in violence must put the physical and psychological integrity of children and adolescents first by not disclosing any information that directly or indirectly reveals the identity of the girl, but here they have publicly exhibited the mother and grandmother. There is even an express prohibition in the Code of Childhood and Adolescence [which says] no information that identifies them should be revealed,” the lawyer said.
Beyond the procedural irregularities, some activists in Nicaragua have noted an unusual personal history between Urbina and the alleged victim’s family — in April, the priest accused the alleged victim’s uncle of stealing from him. While that history does not discount the possibility of Urbina’s guilt, activists say it does raise questions that should be answered.
“It is known through official documents that the priest had accused a family member of the minor of stealing, they had allegedly reached a settlement but now the family accuses him of rape. But the people of Boaco acknowledge the integrity of his ministry,” Molina explained.
A local news site in Nicaragua, 100% Noticias, reported July 21 that it had obtained an April police report Urbina filed against Kevin Gregorio Valle Sequeira, an uncle of the alleged victim.
‘In the hands of the Lord’
The Diocese of Granada could not be reached for comment, and a spokesperson for the Nicaraguan bishops’ conference told The Pillar that the country’s bishops are not talking to the press at the moment.
A source close to the conference told The Pillar that the bishops fear further persecution if they make a statement perceived the wrong way by the regime. Some claim in Nicaragua that the government may be preparing other accusations against priests and even bishops in the country.
It is not clear whether a canonical investigation into Urbina has been opened in Nicaragua, or sent to the Vatican — which canon law would require if the local bishop judges the allegation to have a “semblance of truth.”
But the Granada diocese did issue a July statement saying that “in these difficult times, the Lord’s compassion unites us in the suffering caused by the imprisonment of Father Manuel Salvador Garcia and Monsignor Leonardo Urbina, with them we all place ourselves in the hands of the Lord.”
Is Urbina guilty? It’s possible. But few in Nicaragua expect that the priest’s trial will bring clarity to the allegation — activists say that violations of due process will prevent both Urbina and his alleged victim from seeing a just outcome inside a courtroom.
Some activists argue that the girl at the center of the case was victimized by the Nicaraguan state, when her identity was revealed. Whether she was also harmed by Urbina is unlikely to become clear anytime soon.
The case is expected to resume in court this week.