A Long Beach parish priest pleaded not guilty to nine counts of sexual assault Wednesday afternoon as dozens of his supporters filled the room of the Long Beach Superior Court.
Luis Jose Cuevas, 67, a priest in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, wore a gray-green jumpsuit and expressed little emotion during the proceedings, according to witnesses at the arraignment. The judge ordered the defendent to surrender his passport and stay away from minors, and has also prohibited him from changing his residence.
Bail was set at $260,000, a drop from the $1 million bail that Cuevas was held at prior to the arraignment. He is currently in custody and his next court hearing has been scheduled for August 7.
The priest faces eight misdemeanor counts of sexual battery and one felony count involving lewd acts with a child, officials from the Long Beach Police Department said in a press release. He was arrested after three female victims -- two adults and one minor -- accused the priest of repeated and inappropriate touching, officials said.
The allegations accuse Cuevas of inappropriately touching the victims' breasts over their clothing, acording to Cuevas' attorney George Bird, Jr.
"People who know Father Cuevas and know what's in his heart, know the man," said Bird.
One of his supporters told NBC4 that he will defer to whatever the court finds, but he believes the allegations are unfounded.
"If it's true, then we'll still back him up," said Cuevas supporter Ramon Tapia. "You know, we all make mistakes in life."
Cuevas had served as a parish priest for seven years at St. Athanasius Catholic Church, located at 5390 Linden Avenue (map) in Long Beach. The church offers both English and Spanish masses throughout the week.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office filed formal charges against Cuevas after police officials filed his case on July 19. Cuevas, who was arrested Monday, has been relieved of his duties as pastor, according to an Archdiocese spokeswoman.
When reached Wednesday morning, representatives of St. Athanasius referred questions to the Archdiocese.
Police officials said the two adult victims reported the incidents in April after initially alerting the Archdiocese. During the investigation, the third victim, a 17-year-old female, told police officials that she had been repeatedly and inappropriately touched by Cuevas over a two-year period.
When the Archdiocese heard the allegations from the adult victims, church officials recommended that they contact law enforcement directly since they were adults, said Carolina Guevara, associate directore of media relations for the Archdiocese. Officials then made an announcement about the allegations "as per our protocol," Guevara added.
After the Archdiocese was approached by the 17-year-old victim, church officials immediately worked with the minor to reach out to the police, Guevara said.
"When we received the allegation for the minor, it was reported the same day to the police and a representative from the Archdiocese actually went with the minor to the police," she said.
The Archdiocese has since removed Cuevas from the ministry and is cooperating with police, officials said.
"I am very sorry to report to you today that during the past week, Father Cuevas was accused of misconduct involving a minor," Father Francis Ilano said during mass at the church last weekend, according to a statement from the Archidiocese.
"The Archdiocese takes all matters seriously and considers both allegations to be credible," Ilano said.
He added that Cuevas will be living privately pending the outcome of the proceedings.
Police officials believe that other victims may exist and are urging anyone with information to call the Sex Crimes Detail’s tip line at (562) 570-7878.