Hamilton

Hamilton priest sent back to Portugal after allegations of relationship with a minor

A priest has been suspended from his ministerial duties and ordered to return to Portugal after the Diocese of Hamilton became aware of reports he allegedly had a sexual relationship with a minor before later fathering a child with her.

Father Heitor Antunes was a 'beloved' pastor, says diocese spokesperson

Father Heitor Antunes has been suspended from priestly duties at St. Mary's Parish in Hamilton following reports he had a physical relationship with a young girl in Portugal. (Heitor Antunes/Facebook)

A priest has been suspended from his ministerial duties and ordered to return to Portugal by the Diocese of Hamilton after it became aware of reports he allegedly had a sexual relationship with a minor before later fathering a child with her.

A spokesperson for the diocese confirmed Father Heitor Antunes was removed from his role at Hamilton's St. Mary's Church on March 4 after officials heard about a report in the Observador, a Portuguese publication, about an alleged physical relationship he had with a 14-year-old in that country.

The story states the priest, who was 34 at the time the relationship allegedly began, eventually rented a home for her. When she was 23, the woman reportedly became pregnant with Antunes's child.

The Observador's report is based on interviews with several anonymous sources, including someone the publication says worked with a diocese in Portugal, along with police documents and court records.

CBC News has not independently verified the allegations.

Diocese knew priest was a father

Antunes did not respond to a request for comment from CBC News made through social media. But a translated portion of the Observer story quotes him as saying the following:

"I refute the allegations of sexual abuse as evidenced by the court's report. In fact, I abhor any kind of abuse on others. Regarding children, I had a daughter with a 24-year-old woman. "

Monsignor Murray Kroetsch, Vicar General for the Hamilton diocese, said church officials were aware Antunes was a father when he started preaching at St. Mary's in June 2016, but added the allegations came as a "surprise."

"We were not aware of anything in his past that would indicate any misconduct with a minor," he said.

Kroetsch said Antunes was hired because the diocese was looking for a priest to lead mass in Portuguese. He recalled the Portuguese priest was presented by another priest for consideration.

"Father Heitor came with a letter from his bishop saying there were no allegations of sexual misconduct or misconduct with minors, that he was a priest in good standing."

The vicar general explained that while having a child was a "very serious, moral defect" that the church considers a sin, it is forgivable.

"Our understanding has always been that he fathered a child with a consenting adult," he noted.

The diocese became aware of media reports about the allegations on March 2, a Saturday.

We have never, ever heard anything negative about father during his time in Hamilton in terms of any kind of inappropriate behaviour ...-Monsignor Murray Kroetsch , Diocese of Hamilton

Kroetsch said Antunes was called into their office the following Monday morning and suspended by Bishop Douglas Crosby "from all priestly ministry in our diocese and told him he needs to go home. He's not welcome to continue to live in or minister in the Diocese of Hamilton."

He noted the suspension followed the diocese's policy of immediately removing any priest accused of sexual misconduct until it can be determined whether or not allegations are true.

"He can't minister in our diocese given the allegations."

Kroetsch added that during the conversation with Antunes, church officials learned he had also been suspended by his own bishop in Vila Real, Portugal, and asked to return to the country where he could answer to the allegations.

Church officials in Hamilton have not had any contact with the priest since that meeting.

"I know he's gone from the parish and the diocese and I'm pretty sure he's gone from Canada now too," Kroetsch said.

The vicar general described Antunes as a gifted pastor who was loved by his congregation and who brought "fresh energy" to the parish.

Congregation shocked by allegations

The Sunday following Antunes's suspension, Kroetsch said he went to the church to tell the congregation what had happened and why.

"It was a shock to the people. I could tell that by the look on their faces. He was a very much beloved pastor."

Kroestch said despite the allegations in Portugal, the diocese in Hamilton has not received any reports of Antunes being involved in any alleged misconduct here.

"We have never, ever heard anything negative about father during his time in Hamilton in terms of any kind of inappropriate behaviour, boundary issues or conduct of any kind."