The Sins of the Father

Cantankerous, proud and devoted to helping immigrants, Father Justin Lucio's singleminded sense of duty led to overblown charges of "scandal"

The opposite wall depicts Lucio and Margaret Donnelly being interviewed before TV cameras; Lucio seated in a pulpit chair that resembles a throne; Lucio pointing a finger against his naysayers. Juan Campos, the murals' creator and a former member of Casita Maria's board, envisions Lucio as vigorously fending off all kinds of attackers. "He wakes up in the morning to fight," Campos says. "He is like a quixotic spirit fighting against the windmills. He may never win, but he never gives up."

After Lucio and Casita Maria's top administrators were accused of taking money from the charity, a number of people--investigators, reporters and immigration attorneys--questioned why a priest, who is supposed to be humble, would allow a mural that seems to be an homage to him. Both Campos and Lucio say that they didn't discuss the details of the murals before they were painted, but after they were completed, Lucio asked Campos about the images of him. "He said that the way my life has been of service to the community that I had had enemies, I had had accusations, and he wanted to visualize a concrete image of how that was represented," Lucio says.

Casita Maria was never an arm of the local diocese, but because Lucio was its executive director and for a long time the chairman of its board, its religious underpinnings have always been forceful. Between the two murals, on the landing of the staircase, is an altar dedicated to the Virgen Maria de Guadalupe. A wooden banner above her proclaims in vibrant red Spanish letters that she is the Mother of Immigrants. The staircase landing is where Lucio would go to pray to the Virgin Mary. The last time he went to her for help was about five months ago, when it became clear that he would be fired from Casita Maria and issued a temporary restraining order to keep away from it. "Why is this happening to me?" he asked her. "Our Blessed Mother," he prayed, "I dedicated this to you from the very beginning. You know all the work that has been accomplished through you and through us to legalize the immigrants, and it's in your hands. I can't do anymore; I don't know what to do anymore."

Justin Lucio: "His whole life has been geared at fighting, no matter what the consequences," says Lucio's lawyer Michael Thomas.
Justin Lucio: "His whole life has been geared at fighting, no matter what the consequences," says Lucio's lawyer Michael Thomas.
Lucio in front of his DeSoto home, where immigrants still seek him out.
Tom Jenkins
Lucio in front of his DeSoto home, where immigrants still seek him out.

Lucio founded Casita Maria because it gave him an opportunity to work with the poor, but it also gave him an escape route from the Dallas diocese, which he spoke out against when he believed the bishop at the time, Thomas Tschoepe, was not disbursing funds to the city's poor Hispanic Catholics. Casita Maria also gave the local diocese an escape route from Lucio.

When the Morning News began publishing allegations about Lucio in early 2003, one of the complaints was that, in addition to embezzling money from immigrants, Lucio had been "credibly" accused of forcing two men to have sex with him. In 1989, a parishioner from St. James named Charles Wilson took two immigrant brothers from Mexico--Lucio's friend Joe Granados' brothers--to the diocese because he said they had told him that Lucio coerced them into sex. According to court depositions, after Wilson brought the two Granados brothers forward with their accusations, Bishop Tschoepe and one of the diocese's monsignors had a meeting with Lucio in March 1989. The bishop (who now has Alzheimer's and "doesn't know if he's in heaven or hell," as Lucio puts it) wanted him to admit that he was gay, had raped a woman, had embezzled money from the church and had AIDS. "If you keep quiet," Lucio testified Tschoepe told him, "I will get you the best medical help available."

Lucio insisted that he hadn't done any of those things and didn't have AIDS. Joe Granados stood by him, believing that his brothers' claims were false, a decision that has left him estranged from them. Lucio would later say in one deposition that he was "hauled in and just thrown out of my ministry and my parish." Three months after the March meeting, he staged a hunger strike, which lasted for seven days, at the recently opened Casita Maria. "I felt that God had turned his back on me," Lucio recalls. "Without sharing it with anybody, I had decided that if God didn't resolve this, then I was going to see him. And he did resolve it for me."

Believers say that God works in mysterious ways: Lucio's longtime political ally, Callejo, ended the fast, publicly chastising Tschoepe for ignoring it. "Are you a good shepherd for all Catholics or only some of them?" she asked. "Because you've got one that's dying over here." The next morning, the bishop showed up at Casita Maria and, Lucio says, asked for his forgiveness. "He looked at me laying down there, and he says, 'I want you to eat something in my presence,'" Lucio recalls, so he ate a little piece of bread and told the bishop that he wanted his help in growing Casita Maria.

It was, as the Morning News reported at the time, an "emotional reconciliation," and although at the time the bishop announced that the allegations against Lucio had been "unsubstantiated" and the diocese never disciplined him, by December of that year the bishop still had not assigned him to a new parish or given him funds to support Casita Maria. "Our position was that after those allegations were resolved, Lucio wanted his sole mission to be the development of a service center for Hispanic immigrants," the diocese's spokesman, Bronson Havard, says. The diocese put him on an $800-a-month salary without the room and board dispensed to active parish priests. Lucio, however, was as active as any other priest in the diocese, holding makeshift outdoor worship services in garages and alleyways. "If the man is under a tree, we go under the tree," one of Lucio's followers told the Morning News.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help