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Ex-priest who fled to Philippines pleads not guilty to sexually abusing kids in Fargo area

Fernando Sayasaya appears in a preliminary hearing Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018, in District Court in Fargo for two counts of gross sexual imposition in 1997. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service

FARGO — A former Catholic priest accused of sexually abusing children while he worked at churches in Fargo and West Fargo has pleaded not guilty to two Class B felony counts of gross sexual imposition.

Fernando Laude Sayasaya, 53, appearing in orange Cass County Jail garb, said little during the hearing Wednesday, Feb. 14, in Cass County District Court before Judge Steven McCullough.

Each count against Sayasaya has a maximum prison sentence of 10 years, prosecutor Ryan Younggren said after the hearing. Younggren said he could not comment on whether there have been any negotiations for a plea agreement in the case.

In a December hearing, Sayasaya's bail was set at $5 million cash — a stratospheric amount nearly unheard of in area courtrooms.

Prosecutors had sought a high bail for Sayasaya, saying he posed a flight risk. Sayasaya fled to the Philippines about two decades ago and never returned of his own volition, even though he told investigators at the time that he would return, prosecutors said.

In 2002, Sayasaya was charged in Cass County District Court with the two felony counts of gross sexual imposition.

The charges allege Sayasaya sexually touched two boys under the age of 15 on more than one occasion. In interviews with police, the victims said Sayasaya would touch or attempt to touch their penises and other private parts during times they visited Sayasaya at his apartment. One boy told police Sayasaya would show pornographic movies and serve him alcohol.

Sayasaya was an associate pastor at St. Mary's Cathedral in Fargo and at Blessed Sacrament in West Fargo. He was removed from his priestly duties in the Fargo Diocese in August 1998 after two brothers accused him of sexually assaulting them.

A federal indictment was returned on Sayasaya in January 2003 when he failed to return to the U.S. following a visit to the Philippines around Christmas 1998.

Authorities in the Philippines arrested Sayasaya in late 2017, and he was returned to Fargo in December.

Younggren said there are no added penalties or charges for Sayasaya having left the area during the investigation of the alleged crimes. A felony dispositional conference for Sayasaya is scheduled for April 18.

Helmut Schmidt

Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including education, Fargo city government, business and military affairs. He is currently The Forum's K-12 education reporter.

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