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‘Father of US Latino theology’ dies in apparent suicide after allegation of abuse

Fr Virgilio Elizondo co-founded what is today the Mexican American Catholic College in San Antonio (CNS photo/Octavio Duran)

Fr Virgilio Elizondo, a nationally known professor of pastoral and Hispanic theology at the University of Notre Dame and founder of what is today the Mexican American Catholic College in San Antonio, was found dead in his home on Monday. He was 80.

Fr Elizondo was widely recognised as “the father of US Latino religious thought”. He pursued scholarly work in Latino theology, evangelisation, faith and spirituality, and culture, was the author of many books. He was rector of San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of San Antonio said in a statement: “I join the priests of the Archdiocese of San Antonio as we are deeply saddened and stunned by the news of the death of Fr Virgilio Elizondo on March 14. This is an occasion for great sorrow, as his death was sudden and unexpected.”

“At this devastatingly sad time for Fr Virgil’s family – especially his sister – as well as his brother clergy, co-workers and friends, we offer our most profound sympathies,” the statement said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with them all. I pray for all those who mourn Fr Virgil and for the repose of his soul.”

No details about funeral are arrangements were released.

In May 2015 Fr Elizondo was named secondarily in a lawsuit filed by a John Doe in Bexar County District Court in San Antonio. The suit also named former priest Jesus Armando Dominguez and the San Antonio archdiocese.

The suit alleged that as a boy, John Doe was sexually abused from 1980 to 1983 while he was living in an orphanage and was being mentored by Dominguez, then a student at Assumption Seminary in San Antonio. John Doe claimed that when he went to report the abuse to Fr Elizondo, the priest kissed and fondled him.

Fr Elizondo vigorously denied the charges in a public statement and in conversations with friends, and said he was prepared to fight the allegation legally.

A long-term friend and administrative assistant, Janie Dillard, told the San Antonio Express-News daily newspaper that the accusation “could never be [true]”, and said Fr Elizondo “died of a broken heart”.

Dominguez, who was later ordained in San Bernardino diocese in California, disappeared in 2005 amid criminal charges of sexually molesting a number of boys. He reportedly fled to Mexico and was never arrested.

A native of San Antonio and the son of Mexican immigrants, Fr Elizondo was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of San Antonio in 1963. As a young priest, he worked in parishes, but in 1965, Archbishop Robert Lucey, then head of the archdiocese, appointed him archdiocesan director of religious education.

He was an advocate for underpaid and exploited Mexican-American labourers in the Archdiocese of San Antonio during the early 1970s. Fr Elizondo was active in television work and video productions and is considered the foremost interpreter of US Latino religion by the national and international media.

As pastor of the San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio, Fr Elizondo presided over a Sunday Spanish Mass that was broadcast to more than one million households.

In 1972 he was a co-founder with then-Archbishop Patrick Flores of the Mexican American Cultural Center in San Antonio and served as its first president. It was renamed a few years ago as the Mexican American Catholic College.

He joined the Notre Dame faculty in 2000. Among his many books are The Future Is Mestizo, Galilean Journey and The Human Quest.