PHILIPPINES - A Filipino Catholic priest wanted in the United States for theft and possession of child pornography has surrendered to Philippine authorities after more than a year as a fugitive.
"I am so sorry. I want to apologise to all the people… for the damage I have done to you all, to the Church and to myself," Fr. Lowe Dongor said in an interview in Iloilo.
A native of Barotac Nuevo town in Iloilo, Dongor was flown to the US Monday evening, more than a month after he surrendered to the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) Western Visayas office on Nov. 2.
Dongor, 36, was accompanied by NBI investigating agent Arnold Diaz and will be turned over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation to face various charges including unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.
Dongor agreed to the interview on condition that the news report would be released after he had left the country.
The priest admitted taking around $250 from St. Joseph's Parish of the diocese of Worcester in Massachusetts where he was assigned as associate pastor. He also admitted visiting online pornographic sites with pictures of minors but has denied downloading them in his laptop computer.
"I am ready to go to jail if that will be the consequence of my actions. I leave myself to God now," he said.
Dongor became a US fugitive after he fled to the Philippines on Oct. 1, 2011, leaving through the JFK airport in New York City. He was arraigned on Sept. 12, 2011, at the Fitchburg District Court on possession of child pornography and larceny of more than $250.
In a letter sent to Catholic Bishops of the Conference of the Philippines on Oct. 13, 2011, Worcester Bishop Robert McManus said Dongor was stripped of his positions and was disallowed from wearing clerical attire and functioning as a priest.
McManus said in his letter that their actions were based on the position of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith that the "acquisition, possession and distribution of child pornography is a canonical delict (offence) that pertains to the sexual abuse of a minor."
Dongor, who had a key to the office of the parish, said he took small amounts from their funds, which he said he sent home to his family for a family emergency. He had intended to replace the money with his monthly stipend but he was caught in footages of a closed-circuit television (CCTV) camera installed in the office.
The pornographic photographs of minors were subsequently discovered in laptop computers used by Dongor, which were turned over to authorities investigating the larceny charges.
Dongor said he visited the pornographic sites "out of curiosity."
"Human as I am, I was weak and I was not able to resist the temptation. But still, this is not an excuse. I know that the scandal that I have done affected the lives of many people who…loved me, believed in me and supported me. With this, I am so sorry," he said in a statement.
He also pleaded that his family be spared from the controversy.
Dongor said he has undergone counseling after he was charged with the offences. He added that he would be willing to undergo further treatment and counseling especially on his sexual interest in minors.
"I just want to be given a chance. I want peace of mind and to start a new life," Dongor said.
Investigating agent Arnold Diaz of the NBI said Dongor agreed to surrender after negotiations mediated by a priest.
Lawyer Elfren Meneses, NBI regional director, said Dongor has not violated Philippine laws but was turned over to the US based on an FBI request to locate the priest.
Dongor said he fled to the Philippines because he was confused and felt abandoned when his parishioners and Filipino friends distanced themselves.
"I had no one to run to. But I understand them because I betrayed their trust," he said.
After arriving in the Philippines, Dongor said he stayed in Manila and his hometown in Barotac Nuevo where he eventually told his family about his situation. He then went back to Manila where he worked as a call centre agent until he surrendered.
Dongor left for the US in 2003 on a scholarship of the Augustinians of the Assumption. He later pursued priesthood at the Saint Mary Seminary and University in Baltimore.
He was ordained on June 26, 2010, the first Filipino priest in Worchester.
"I know that I cannot be a priest anymore. But I hope I can serve God in other ways," he said.