A former priest from Harford pleaded guilty to federal charges Monday on the first day of a U.S. District Court trial in which he faced allegations of illegal sexual activity with minors, Maryland’s U.S. Attorney’s Office reported Tuesday.
Fernando Cristancho, 65 of Bel Air, pleaded guilty to coercion and enticement of a minor he met through his work as a priest to engage in sexual activity. Cristancho also admitted to producing nude images of four other minors, according to authorities.
If the court accepts the plea, Cristancho will be sentenced to between 10 years and 25 years in federal prison and register as a sex offender when he is released. He also would face at least 10 years of supervised release. Sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 20.
According to the U.S. attorney’s office, Cristancho was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in the country of Colombia in 1985 and moved to Alexandria, Virginia, where he was an assistant priest from 1994 to 1997.
Around 1999, Cristancho worked as a priest in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, first in Baltimore County and then at St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Harford County.
Shortly after arriving at St. Ignatius in 1999, Cristancho became close with a woman and her then 8-year-old grandson, according to the plea agreement. The woman was a regular parishioner at St. Ignatius and would often bring her grandson with her, according to an agreed statement of facts. Cristancho began to grow close to the family, spending time with them outside of church.
When the boy turned 11, the U.S. attorney’s office said, Cristancho began sexually abusing the child. Cristancho would complain of a bad back and ask the boy for back rubs, the U.S. attorney’s office stated. He would also offer the boy alcohol, kiss him and act as if they were in a romantic relationship, including telling the boy that he loved him. Cristancho also showed the boy pornography and suggested they perform the sexual activities depicted.
When Cristancho left St. Ignatius, the U.S. attorney’s office stated, he would hold religious ceremonies at a parishioner’s house where the boy would act as a lector, a role he performed while at St. Ignatius with Cristancho. In the summer of 2002, Cristancho became more involved with the family, inviting himself on a camping trip, arranging for the boy to help him around the house and spending weekends with him.
It was during those weekend stays that Cristancho sexually abused the boy, according to the U.S. attorney’s office. The abuse continued from 2002 through fall 2003, prosecutors said.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore revoked Cristancho’s authority to work as a priest in 2002.
“In July 2002, Cristancho refused an assignment to another parish from Cardinal William H. Keeler, then Archbishop of Baltimore, which led to the revocation of his faculties to minister in the Archdiocese of Baltimore on July 8, 2002,” according to a 2017 statement posted on the Archdiocese’s website. “Cristancho has had no assignment and has not been permitted to function as priest in the Archdiocese of Baltimore since July 2002.”
Late Tuesday, executive director for the archdiocese’s communications office Christian Kendzierski urged anyone with knowledge of child sexual abuse to report it. He said the archdiocese admires sexual abuse survivors’ courage to come forward, and that the organization is “committed to protecting children and helping to heal victims of abuse.”
“The Archdiocese recognizes guilty pleas do not erase the pain suffered by survivors but does pray that this plea, will contribute to healing.
Cristancho’s crimes were discovered by authorities after he went to a pharmacy to use its printing equipment in September 2017, prosecutors stated. An employee at the pharmacy saw what appeared to be photos of naked children on Cristancho’s phone while assisting him and made a report to the police.
Police started an investigation, which led to a search warrant served on Cristancho’s home on Sept. 19, 2017. Investigators seized electronic devices from the house and found nude photos of four minors on his phone.
Most of the images were taken when the minors were less than 5 years old, prosecutors reported.
In July 2021, authorities became aware of a woman who said Cristancho molested her in Virginia and Maryland. Prosecutors motioned to include it as evidence in the trial. The woman, now 33, grew up near Alexandria and was 7 years old when Cristancho was a priest in the area around 1995. He began taking English lessons with her mother, and she served at the parish.
The woman, who was not identified, said the abuse started when Cristancho was visiting her family’s home, court documents state.
Cristancho continued to touch her inappropriately but said he would get in “huge” trouble if she told anyone, the documents state. The girl, who tried to alert her mother to the abuse, did not tell anyone else about it until years later.
In 1998, the girl and her family moved to Bel Air when she was 10. She did not expect to see the defendant after moving, but he visited and eventually moved to Bel Air. The girl and her family attended St. Ignatius — her grandparents’ parish — as well as others in Harford County, according to court documents.
In Maryland, the documents state, Cristancho’s abuse “escalated.” He had a key to the girl’s home and was sometimes alone with her in the house. Often, the abuse would occur when they were alone together, but sometimes it would happen subtly around others, the documents state.
After the final instance of abuse in 2002, the girl told her mother, who confronted Cristancho. He said he would turn himself in to the police, which the girl thought would be a good idea, but “her mother said this would be bad timing for the Church,” the documents state, in the wake of the Boston Globe’s investigation into child sex abuse among priests of the Catholic Church.
Her mother and Cristancho made the girl have confession with him alone in her bedroom.
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“During this confession, the defendant made [her] think that she was partially to blame for . . . the sexual abuse,” the documents state.