As a teenager committed to her Roman Catholic faith, she thought she was doing everything right.
She volunteered as an altar server at her Roxborough parish. She sang in the choir and worked nights and weekends as a fill-in secretary at the church office.
And even when, at 16, she gave in to the sexual advances of her priest — the Rev. Armand Garcia — she said she believed him when he told her that God had put him in her life to take care of her.
Then came the time she refused.
“He came up from behind me and pushed me up against a wall. He held my arms down and spread my legs apart,” the now-21-year-old testified in a Philadelphia courtroom Thursday. “I was wearing my school uniform. I didn’t know what to do.”
That alleged 2014 assault in the rectory of Immaculate Heart of Mary parish now forms the basis of one of the first criminal prosecutions of an area priest since the Archdiocese of Philadelphia recommitted to cracking down on sexual offenses after a scathing 2011 grand jury investigation that led to charges against six clerics.
The testimony of the woman — offered publicly for the first time Thursday — serves as the backbone of the government’s case. The Inquirer is withholding her name because she is an alleged victim of sexual assault.
Her composed and self-assured account persuaded Municipal Court Judge Wendy L. Pew to hold Garcia for trial on charges including rape, sexual assault, and corruption of a minor.
Prosecutors also have charged the 50-year-old priest with filming a sex act involving a child — counts tied to cell-phone video his accuser said he shot of their encounters on at least two occasions.
“He said he wanted to have something to remember it by,” the woman recalled. “I could only watch a few minutes. I was very uncomfortable.”
Garcia, who spent much of Thursday’s hearing with his head bowed and hands clenched in his lap, has denied the charges.
But unlike many of the cases of sexual misconduct involving priests that have begun a new wave of the global clergy abuse crisis in the last year, Garcia’s alleged assault was preceded by what his lawyer, William J. Brennan, described Thursday as a “long-standing consensual sexual relationship” with his accuser.
In court, Brennan questioned why — after his client had taken pains to limit their liaisons to closed parish offices, secluded church basements, and even his personal home in Brookhaven, Delaware County — the priest would run the risk of raping her in a location where he might be easily caught.
“You’re saying he threw you up against a wall in the main living space, where any of the other priests could walk through at any time and see him assaulting you?” he asked the accuser in cross-examination.
But the woman stuck to her story and challenged the notion that her relationship with Garcia — a man nearly three decades her senior — could have been consensual.
“He’d known me since the eighth grade,” she said. “He knew my father very well.”
Pennsylvania’s age of consent is 16. When they began their liaisons in 2014, Garcia’s accuser said, she was a high school sophomore and struggling emotionally with an incident in which she blacked out at a party and feared she might have been sexually assaulted.
She shared those concerns with Garcia, on whom she had formed a schoolgirl crush soon after he was transferred to Immaculate Heart of Mary in 2011. He helped her to tell her parents and offered to help her work through her feelings.
Those counseling sessions quickly developed into sexual liaisons as frequent as twice weekly over the next several months, she told the court. He often offered her alcohol or marijuana, she said, and she always refused.
Over time, though, Garcia became more controlling. When she started dating a boy closer to her age in her junior year, she said, he demanded to know whether they were sexually active. Even after the alleged rape, she said, she continued her relationship with the priest.
“I felt very alone,” she said. ”I felt isolated. I couldn’t talk to anyone about anything.”
It wasn’t until she left for college in 2016, she said, that she worked up the courage to break off their relationship and then, a year later, contact police.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput suspended Garcia in 2018 after learning of the investigation and notified parishioners at his most recent assignment at St. Martin of Tours parish in the city’s Summerdale section.
Since then, his ministry has been restricted and the archdiocese is not contributing to his legal bills.
Garcia remains free on $250,000 bond and is scheduled to be arraigned on the charges on May 30.