NEW BEDFORD -- Investigators have found tens of thousands of child pornography images on a laptop computer used by the Rev. Stephen A. Fernandes and are now looking into whether any area children were victimized by the priest at Our Lady of Fatima Church, Bristol County District Attorney Paul F. Walsh Jr. said yesterday.
Walsh said that the images are from movies, videos, and printed materials. Investigators are now trying to determine whether any of the children in the images were residents of the area, Walsh said.
''If we can discover their identities, we then contact them and find out if they've been the victims of any kind of sexual assaults," he said. ''That's ongoing now."
Walsh spoke in a phone interview after Fernandes, 54, pleaded not guilty yesterday in New Bedford District Court to one count of possessing child pornography. District Court Judge David T. Turcotte set bail at $5,000 cash, ordered Fernandes to surrender his passport, and set Dec. 28 as his next court date.
Fernandes, who had been pastor of Our Lady of Fatima Church in New Bedford since 2002, was silent as he left the courthouse, surrounded by news cameras and reporters. In a statement and an interview, John E. Kearns Jr., the spokesman for the Fall River Diocese, said Fernandes has been placed on administrative leave with pay, ordered out of the rectory, and banned from performing any priestly duties.
According to one law enforcement source, forensic computer specialists have discovered that on at least one occasion, Fernandes posed as a girl in a chatroom and persuaded a 12-year-old boy to perform sex acts in front of a webcam.
''They thought they were posing for some girl," the source said.
Fernandes himself triggered the inquiry that currently has him facing up to five years imprisonment. According to court records, Fernandes was having problems with the laptop and contacted the diocese's computer repair company Oct. 25. Two days later, a technician for DEG Associates of Fall River discovered the child pornography.
That same day, Oct. 27, the company notified the diocese, and the diocese alerted Bristol County law enforcement officials, under a policy adopted in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal involving Roman Catholic priests in Massachusetts, according to court records.
The leader of the diocese, Bishop George W. Coleman, told Fernandes Nov. 5 about the discovery and also told him he had given the laptop to authorities, according to court records. Coleman told investigators that he spent three hours with Fernandes, who at one point, ''slumped into his chair, head on the table, and appeared very distant and noncommunicative," records show.
Coleman told investigators that he heard Fernandes repeatedly saying, ''such a disgrace, such a disgrace" and worrying about the impact the revelations would have on his elderly father's health.
''This will kill my father," Fernandes said, records show.
The images discovered on his laptop include pictures of naked children and images of children performing sex acts on men, Walsh said.
A director of a website that tracks priest abuse cases involving the Catholic Church, applauded Coleman for acting quickly in the Fernandes case.
''It's what should have been done, and it was done in this case," said Terence McKiernan, a director of bishopaccountability.org, adding that this case mirrors one in Iowa in which a former priest is now serving a federal prison sentence for possessing child pornography. ''And that's a good thing."
In addition to seizing the laptop, records show, police searched Fernandes's rooms at the rectory and found gay pornography and several books that explore the issue of homosexuality. They also seized a desktop computer and numerous disks from the rectory.
Fernandes, a New Bedford native who has been active in Portuguese culture, is a collector of books on stage magicians and magic, according to information posted on various collector websites. He also was, until being put on leave, the public voice and face of the Fall River Diocese's Pro-Life Office, which coordinates antiabortion activities.
According to court records, the church's bookkeeper told investigators she never saw Fernandes with children inside the rectory and that only three adults, including a friend of Fernandes's who has since died, stayed overnight at the rectory.
The records show that Fernandes told Coleman that he wanted to be sent to St. Luke's Hospital in Baltimore for treatment, but Walsh said that once he learned that Fernandes might leave the state, he ordered him to be arrested. Fernandes was arrested Friday and released on $5,000 cash bail Saturday, records show.
The Fall River Diocese and Walsh urged anyone who has information or has had extensive contact with Fernandes to get in touch with authorities. Walsh said he was a ''little bit flabbergasted" that Fernandes handed over his computer for repair.
''To have that on church property and in the church rectory and then send it out to be serviced -- it certainly gives one pause to wonder what we are dealing with here," he said.