Law enforcement officials are trying to find a Catholic priest -- on probation for groping a Brooklyn girl -- who disappeared after a Hampton Bays family accused him of molesting a 7-year-old girl.
The family, which had befriended the Rev. Augusto Cortez, 50, wants to know why he was allowed to act as a priest even though his order promised a Brooklyn court he wouldn't after he was put on probation for molesting a 12-year-old girl there in 2008.
To the family's horror, their decade-long relationship with Cortez ended in June when they say they found he had molested their daughter during a high school graduation party for their older daughter, and may have given the younger girl a sexually transmitted disease.
Southampton Town police questioned Cortez, but let him go and allowed him to get his car, the family said. He hasn't been seen since. There is a warrant for his arrest on a charge of first-degree sexual abuse, said a law enforcement source. Southampton police did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
"We truly believe he will do this again," said the older daughter. Newsday is not naming the family to avoid identifying the younger girl. "It's not something that just happened to her. It happened to all of us."
Cortez, a Guatemalan native and a member of the Vincentians' Eastern Province of the Congregation of the Mission, an order based in Philadelphia, was charged in June 2008 with second-degree sexual abuse for reaching inside a 12-year-old girl's shirt to feel her breast. He eventually pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of forcible touching -- not a crime that would require him to register as a sex offender -- and was sentenced to 6 years on probation.
One reason he got that sentence was because the Vincentians' provincial, the Rev. Michael Carroll, wrote a letter to the court, said the Hampton Bays family's attorney, Michael Dowd of Manhattan.
"He will never be allowed to present himself as a priest," Carroll wrote in the letter. "Father Cortez will work within the institution [in Philadelphia] in a non-clerical role such as a bookkeeper, archivist or groundskeeper depending on his skills. He will have an active and supervised safety plan limiting his activity and assuring that he has no contact with children."
However, he had almost continuous contact with at least this family's children. Family photos over the years show him with both daughters in a variety of settings, including their pool and at karate lessons. They say he continued to say Mass, although the Vincentians said through a spokeswoman that he "was specifically not authorized to hold himself out as a priest, engage in any public ministry, nor be alone in the presence of children."
"For us, he was like a brother, a family member," the mother said in Spanish, translated by the older daughter.
In a prepared statement, the Vincentians said, "We have fully cooperated with law enforcement officials and will continue to do so, so that Mr. Cortez may be located as soon as possible and brought to justice. Our prayers are with all those involved in this terrible situation."
The girl's mother said Cortez was close to other families in the area and possibly to one in Westbury. They had known Cortez since the older daughter's first communion, 10 years ago. "We used to go to church a lot, and he'd visit a lot, socially," she said.
"We never really saw him do anything strange," the father said in Spanish.
After the Brooklyn arrest, Cortez initially was confined to the order in Philadelphia, Dowd and family members said. The older daughter said Cortez acknowledged he had been accused of molesting a girl, but minimized it, saying the Brooklyn family just wanted money from the Vincentians. The family continued to trust him, even visiting him in Philadelphia.
Then in 2013, the younger daughter was diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease. As part of a Child Protective Services investigation, the family members said they were tested and found not to have the disease. The mystery of how she contracted the disease seemed to be solved at the older daughter's graduation party in June, family members said.
The mother said she walked into the living room and saw her younger daughter, looking scared and disheveled on the couch. Cortez was adjusting his pants and zipping up his fly, she said. The family went to the town police, who took Cortez into custody.
Before the sun came up, police had brought him back to the family's house and let him get his car. No one has seen him since then.
Now the younger daughter is terrified of adults, particularly men. And the family's faith is broken. The mother said a fellow priest reassured them after the Brooklyn case, describing it as just an accident.
"I used to go to Mass," the mother said. "But now I can't. I feel they covered for him. It's like they're hiding him."