[Diocese of Los Angeles] Maria Cueto, a former Episcopal Church staff member who was once imprisoned for refusing to cooperating in an FBI probe of church activities, has died.
Cueto was also a longtime lay leader in social services and Latino ministries of the Diocese of Los Angeles.
Colleagues confirmed Cueto’s death after her body was found June 23 at her nearby home. She was 68 and had been in declining health.
In the mid-1970s, Cueto was staff director of the National Hispanic Commission and employed at the Episcopal Church Center in New York. She was highly regarded in that work and throughout a subsequent nine-year ordeal that included two prison sentences for refusing, as a matter of conscience, to testify before a grand jury amid an FBI probe alleging links between commission members and the FALN (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional), a violent faction of the Puerto Rican independence movement.
Cueto, then age 33, and her secretary were subpoenaed in the case in 1977, as were Presiding Bishop John M. Allin and another church executive who cooperated in the investigation. After refusing to testify before the grand jury, Cueto and her secretary, Raisa Nemikin, served 10 months in prison but were released when a federal judge found no reason to connect them with the FALN.
The FBI, however, continued to pursue Cueto, who – with four others including Episcopal Church Publishing Company board member Stephen Guerra – again refused to testify before the grand jury. At the time, the FBI alleged that the five “represented the remaining leadership of the FALN,” a charge the defendants denied.
Despite character references provided by four leading Episcopal bishops, Cueto – together with Guerra and the three other defendants – was convicted of criminal contempt of court and served 25 months of a three-year sentence in federal prison.
“It is clear to us that there is a fundamental civil liberties issue here,” Cueto’s longtime friend and advocate the Rev. Richard Gillett said at the time. “The issue is the right of refusal to testify before a grand jury when the process admits no right of an accused [person] to confront or cross-examine accusers or evidence.”
Commenting in a 1984 interview on “the question of the grand jury and how it abuses its power,” Cueto told The Witness magazine, “One could assume the position that you’re not hurting anyone by just saying, ‘I don’t know anything,” but that’s not going to be enough. The FBI insists that you do and creates the kind of situation where you’re accused of hiding something or lying to them. By not testifying, you don’t allow them to create that situation.”
In a 1983 letter supporting Cueto, the Rev. Canon Oliver B. Garver Jr., then executive assistant to Los Angeles Bishop Robert C. Rusack, wrote to U.S. District Judge Charles P. Sifton: “I do not agree with all her positions on issues, but this is not the point. I respect her right to hold her opinions, not inconsistent with the Scriptures. Puerto Rican independence is an issue on which we disagree. However, we agree in the rejection of all forms of violence and terrorism in the pursuit of any goal. I deplore the tactics of FALN, as I am certain Maria does, also. … I salute her honesty and integrity.”
Upon her 1986 release from federal prison in Pleasanton, California, Cueto was welcomed home to Epiphany Church, East Los Angeles, where her aunt, the late Virginia Ram, was a prominent lay leader and member of the Episcopal Church’s Executive Council.
Cueto served Our Saviour Center in El Monte, California, from 1994 to 2010 as a parenting instructor and personal services case manager who assisted the agency’s homeless clients. She served on the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Los Angeles from 1992 to 1996 and at other times on the Commission on Ministry and Hispanic ministries program group.
Cueto was born Dec. 19, 1943. Survivors include two nieces in Arizona and cousins in Southern California. A memorial service will be held at 7 p.m. on Friday, July 20, at Immanuel Church in El Monte, California, where Cueto served as a licensed lay minister. Arrangements include interment of ashes in Arizona.