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"

By early 2003, however, when America was in the throes of hysteria about abusive Catholic priests, the facts--that Lucio was never found guilty and the diocese had never disciplined him--were not an indication that he might be innocent but that he had somehow evaded censure.

Miguel Granados refuses to talk about the scandal, and his brother Enrique could not be located. Lucio claims that the brothers accused him because he refused to sign their applications for citizenship. Doing so would have forced him to lie, he says.

The Morning News did not quote testimony Lucio gave about an encounter with one of the Granados brothers: Enrique, Lucio said, acknowledged that he had been sent to tape-record Lucio confessing to the affair. Lucio told Enrique that he didn't know what he was talking about.

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.

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"And as I was going to approach him he took out a tape recorder and... I believe he said, 'I was sent to tape-record you.' And then he ripped it up. He said, 'I can't do this to you.'"

A more dramatic occurrence was yet to come: Lucio sued Wilson, the parishioner who had brought the issue forward, for libel. "I'm not seeking to recover any money," Lucio said when asked by Wilson's attorneys exactly what he wanted. "I never got a clear vindication from the authorities. I want my name cleared." Lucio says he ran out of money as the suit dragged on, so he dropped it. "I was looking at about three or four years [of legal activity]," Lucio says. "I was just starting Casita Maria, and I wanted to continue on with my life." (Wilson declined to comment.)

Lucio prayed to the Virgin Mary that day at Casita Maria five months ago because he was distraught on more than one account. The Morning News had printed a series of articles asserting that Lucio "charged [immigrants] millions for help while spending large sums on real estate, cars and other purchases that benefit him and his associates."

The News' list of financial grievances against Casita Maria was lengthy: Casita Maria's administrators had amassed "a small fleet of automobiles," the paper said, a problem since transportation was not one of the services the nonprofit offered to its clients. The Morning News uncovered Casita Maria's board of directors bestowing loans to its own members. Instead of soliciting grants and donations from outside sources, as the federal government requires for a charity accredited by the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, Casita Maria depended on income generated by the thousands of immigrants who went there seeking help. (Casita Maria charged a $30 donation for helping an immigrant renew a green card, for example, while Catholic Charities charges $50.)

Using that income, Lucio and David Villatoro, a maintenance worker from El Salvador, had bought a house in DeSoto in 2001 for $170,000. Two months later, the title of that property was switched over to Casita Maria, and the two men were allowed to live there for $10 a month in rent, approved by Casita's board.

In 1997, $42,000 in cash and $6,000 in gold jewelry was stolen from Casita Maria's safe, a theft that remains unsolved, even though there were no signs of forced entry into Casita Maria or the safe and only one employee was entrusted with the combination. Because Lucio was the executive director of Casita Maria and also the chairman of its board, he elected to give himself and three other chief administrators $10,000 bonuses each in 2001, and $3,500 for every other employee, because they had all worked well and hard, they decided.

In an editorial about the resurrected sex scandal and the new financial allegations, the News wrote that Casita Maria was guilty of "rank and sickening corruption, of glaring mismanagement and of mercenary mistreatment of vulnerable people whom the charity was established to serve." Lucio's behavior was "morally repugnant," and Dallas Bishop Charles Grahmann "must resign so that a new bishop can have a chance to clean up the diocese's mess."

It is no surprise that Lucio now says that the articles were "extremely damaging." The Morning News, however, had a reason to suspect that financially shifty things were taking place at Casita Maria. Its 2001 tax return stated that $141,702 had been spent that year by Casita Maria on automobiles alone.

But then something unexpected happened: Five months after the News' articles about Casita Maria's finances appeared, the Texas Attorney General's Office concluded that although "there have been several instances of impropriety in the operations of Casita Maria," they were "largely the result of unfamiliarity with charitable, nonprofit fiduciary obligations, not willful and knowing violations of law." The problems were minor enough that they could have been avoided "had the board been properly educated in nonprofit entity management and fiduciary duties." The administrators at Casita Maria had not, in fact, been spending immigrants' money on themselves in large sums. Lucio was ordered to pay back $18,000 that the attorney general said had been used for his own well-being, purchases that Lucio says he cannot account for.

"Oh, that doesn't surprise me," says Frank Sommerville, a lawyer for Casita Maria. At Lucio's home, phone numbers are scrawled across the backs of checkbooks and on pill boxes. Lucio paid great attention to the details of immigration law but not to the finances of his organization. Casita Maria and Lucio often seemed to be one and the same.

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