Concilio aide eyed in molest probe

Roberto Santiago, shown last month, was reinstated in June.
Roberto Santiago, shown last month, was reinstated in June.
Posted: September 17, 2009

NOTE: THIS STORY HAS BEEN CORRECTED.

Roberto R. Santiago, executive director of the Latino social-service agency Concilio, who had been investigated by police earlier this year for alleged sexual improprieties at work, is now under investigation for alleged child-molestation in the 1980s.

Two sisters, Santiago's stepdaughters from his first marriage, have filed police reports against him, alleging that Santiago, 51, sexually molested them as young girls 25 years ago. He is purported to have abused them, first in Buffalo, N.Y. and then in Philadelphia, according to one of the alleged victims.

Both sisters, 30 and 32, are Philadelphia police officers.

"I can confirm that we do have an investigation involving Roberto Santiago," said Capt. John Darby, commander of the Special Victims Unit. He also said that two complaints had been filed against Santiago.

Melinda Tavarez, the older of the siblings, alleged in a police report filed July 27 that Santiago had sexually molested her from ages 7 to 11.

Her sister, whose name is being withheld at her request, filed a police report within the last week or so claiming that Santiago had sexually molested her around the same period he's alleged to have molested Tavarez, according to Tavarez. Investigators are trying to determine whether the statute of limitations has run out based on the women's ages. If the statute has expired, then law enforcement would be prevented from filing criminal charges.

Santiago, who has not been charged with a crime, did not return phone calls for comment.

But a longtime friend, Iris Colon, defended him yesterday.

"I'm stunned," she said of the allegations. "An investigation doesn't make anyone guilty. It's not the Roberto I know. It's the first time I hear anything like that."

Antonio "Tony" Valdes, Concilio board president, declined to comment on the allegations."Because it's sensitive in nature, we are taking this very seriously. This is the first we're hearing of it," he said.

Santiago is a fixture in the Latino community. For 13 years, he has headed Concilio, the Council of Spanish-speaking Organizations, the state's oldest Latino agency, founded in 1962.

He was placed on administrative leave with pay March 31, after a female Concilio employee alleged that he had forcibly tried to undress her and touched her breasts.

The Special Victims Unit launched an investigation into that matter March 23, but the case was closed June 1 after the District Attorney's Office declined to file charges.

The Concilio board also hired an outside law firm to investigate Santiago. The board cleared him and reinstated him to his $96,000-a-year position in early June.

Among its services, the nonprofit Concilio offers programs focused on toddlers and adolescents, including a teen sexual-abstinence program, parenting-skills training, preschool immunization, children and youth summer camp, adoption services and a summer youth program.

Concilio regularly receives city funding, according to figures provided by the Mayor's Office. Since 2004, it has received about $16.3 million in city contracts. All have expired, except for one with the Department of Public Health, which expires Nov. 30.

'He's a hypocrite'

Although the Daily News routinely withholds the identities of alleged victims of sex crimes, Tavarez said she wants people to know her as Santiago's accuser.

His work as head of an agency that assists children and families in need is incongruous with the man Tavarez knows, she said.

"He's a hypocrite," Tavarez said of Santiago in an interview with the Daily News. "How can you act one way and [then] you do the complete opposite of what you represent?"

After she filed a police report with the Special Victims Unit, the eight-year police veteran said she finally felt "calm."

"I'm at a good place. I fueled rage," Tavarez said, referring to the years since the alleged abuse. "I was aggressive because of everything that I experienced."

Santiago started the purported sexual abuse in 1984, when Melinda Tavarez was 7.

During their first encounter, Santiago told Tavarez "to lie naked in bed with him to allegedly watch TV," according to an incident report.

Instead, her stepfather placed "her between his legs causing his penis to rub against her buttocks, putting his tongue in her ear," the police report said.

"I knew it was wrong," Tavarez said of the alleged abuse, she said which lasted four years. But "I second-guessed myself, 'maybe I'm wrong,' maybe this is his way of showing me he loved me 'cause I loved him as a father figure."

The sexual behavior was usually preceded by an invitation for fun, she said. He would say, " 'Why don't you watch a movie with me?' " she said.

After a few years, Tavarez said, she got "slick" and knew how to avoid more encounters with Santiago. She'd opt out of his invitation to watch TV and instead play outside with friends, she said.

He stopped the abuse when Melinda got her period, she said. She was 11.

She said that Santiago checked out her private parts to make sure she was truly menstruating.

Five years later, her mother divorced Santiago, Tavarez said. Neither daughter told their mother about the abuses they suffered. They finally confided in her after she saw the Daily News article on Santiago's March 31 suspension, Tavarez said. A few days later, Tavarez called the paper.

A 'powerless' woman

Marisol, the accuser in the Concilio case, agreed to talk with the Daily News about the ordeal on condition that we use only her first name.

She accused Santiago, who is married, of attempted sexual assault on March 6 and filed a report with police on March 23.

Concilio's board hired Huntingdon Valley lawyer Michael J. Torchia to investigate the matter. The report was completed April 27, and Santiago was reinstated to his position June 6, three days after the Special Victims Unit closed Marisol's case.

Marisol, 36, also filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission in May and, on Aug. 19, filed a civil lawsuit against Santiago in Common Pleas Court.

In the PHRC complaint, she charges Concilio and Santiago with sexual harassment and, later, retaliation in the workplace. An agency investigation was launched June 12, said PHRC spokeswoman Shannon Powers.

The lawsuit in Common Pleas Court, which names only Santiago, claims that he attempted to sexually assault his employee in the early-morning hours of March 6 inside his Concilio office, said Marisol's attorney, Jeffrey Campolongo. Over the course of the next two weeks, Santiago asked her repeatedly to enter in a "serious relationship" with him, according to the PHRC complaint.

Santiago did not respond to repeated calls for comment on the PHRC complaint and the lawsuit. When confronted recently in the parking lot of Concilio, on 7th Street near Fairmount, he told a Daily News reporter "My reply to you is to get a hold of our attorneys."

Concilio's attorney, Jonathan Nadler of Reed Smith, has not responded to phone calls from the Daily News. Nadler does not represent Santiago in the civil lawsuit because the organization is not named in it.

It is unclear who represents him in the civil suit.

For her part, Marisol said she is living with depression and fears for her life. She said she has received an onslaught of hostile phone calls in support of Santiago including a death threat. The shrubbery at the side of her house was vandalized, she said. And said she's been seeing a therapist once a week since April.

"I have pent-up anger. This affected [my] family," Marisol said in an interview conducted in Spanish. She is the mother of three children and in the middle of a divorce.

"I felt like an object, like someone comes and treats you like garbage," she said. "I felt powerless . . . We are not talking about any person. We are talking about my senior boss.

"I'm fighting from the bottom against the top," she said.

Valdes, president of Concilio's board of directors, only addressed the PHRC complaint.

"We have formally responded to the Human Relations Commission and are confident that it answers all the questions [and] statements."

Campolongo, Marisol's attorney, said he has contempt not just for Santiago's alleged misdeeds, but also for Concilio.

"It is absurdly duplicitous when the victim's own employer actively condones the predator's actions," Campolongo said. "Before and after my client complained about Santiago, Concilio's board of directors was given ample opportunity to correct and rectify his well-known propensity to prey on women."

Santiago's backers and others claim the two had an ongoing affair for months and dismiss Marisol's claims of sexual impropriety.

Colon, Santiago's longtime friend, calls the alleged victim's claims "out of character" for her friend.

"Many people knew that those two were in a romance," she said in an interview conducted in Spanish.

Marisol denies any romantic relationship, saying her first substantive conversation with her boss was on the night of the alleged assault. She began working nearly three years ago as a social worker for the Services for Children in their Own Home program at Concilio, she said.

Her job was eliminated July 14, two weeks after the program was phased out by the Department of Human Services.

From her December 2006 start date until the week she filed a complaint against Santiago, Marisol did not receive one negative note in her human-resources file, said Campolongo.

But once she accused Santiago, she received 11 memos in her file between March 24 and June 10, Campolongo said.

Tavarez feels that she has turned the page now that she's filed the police report, but the weight of the alleged abuse has accompanied her throughout her adult life.

"You feel ashamed. You feel disgusting and you don't want people to look at you," she said. "He was supposed to be my dad, my 'papi.' "


 CORRECTION:

Due to an error in the editing process, the story about child molestation allegations against Concilio executive director Roberto Santiago incorrectly attributed to where the purported crimes took place. The alleged victim stated the locations of the crimes.

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