LONG BEACH — A former Catholic priest at a North Long Beach parish received probation Wednesday after pleading no contest to three counts of sexual battery. | PHOTOS

Luis Jose Cuevas, 68, who served at St. Athanasius Catholic Church, 5390 Linden Ave., avoided jail time at his sentencing in Long Beach Superior Court. He was given five years of formal probation and must register as a sex offender as part of a plea agreement.

Cuevas, who was initially charged with nine counts, agreed to one count of sexual battery against of each of three victims, including one felony because the victim was a minor.

Prior to the sentencing, Cuevas' lawyer, George Bird, said his client accepted responsibility for his actions and would "use his remaining time to (be) kind, as he attempted to do through his life."

Cuevas' sentencing drew added interest in the wake of this week's release of thousands of documents related to priest sex abuse within the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Given the publicity, Bird said, "I'm glad we're not picking a jury today."

Two of Cuevas' victims came to court for the sentencing. They issued a written impact statement that was read by Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Zepeda.

It read in part that Cuevas had caused them to see the world differently and affected their ability to trust.

"Now we see the true colors of life," the statement said.

It concluded with "God be with you, because you need him more than us."

The victims did not speak to the press and were quickly ushered out of court by a Long Beach Police Department detective.

Cuevas, who was free on bail, was dressed in a black suit and blue shirt with white stripes. Prior to being sentenced he sat in the courtroom and chatted quietly in Spanish with one of his former congregants.

Cuevas also had a Spanish interpreter when the judge read the sentence. He answered in a strong "Yes" when asked if he accepted the terms of his sentencing.

When Cuevas was first charged, about 100 members of the church appeared at the courthouse to support him. It was a different scene Wednesday, as less than 10 supporters appeared.

However, those who did come remained steadfast in their support of the former priest.

Consuelo Garcia said Cuevas had been a mentor to her, and "not once did I doubt his innocence."

She was also sorry that Cuevas would no longer practice as a priest.

"It's a pity he can't do what he loves to do anymore," Garcia said, adding she and others are praying for the victims.

Outside the courthouse, Martha Montes, another supporter, said of the priest: "I believe in my heart he is innocent."

Prior to sentencing, Bird said Cuevas, 68, had been in ministry since the age of 11, when he entered a seminary. He was ordained in 1974 and studied in Rome and Mexico.

The case involved Cuevas touching the outside of the victims' breasts, outside their clothing, while hugging, Bird said.

"There was a serious issue of intent," he said.

The case came to light in April, police said, when two women accused Cuevas of sexual battery, initially reporting the incidents to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles before filing a police report.

The third victim, a minor, came forward after an announcement at St. Athanasius about the investigation. The 17-year-old girl accused Cuevas of repeated incidents of inappropriate touching dating back to when she was 14, police and prosecutors said.

Prosecutors initially also said there were at least 16 other incidents involving Cuevas that were past the statute of limitations.

Bird questioned that, saying Cuevas had no history of inappropriate behavior and he received nothing in discovery from prosecutors to suggest prior acts.

In addition to the probation and registration as a sex offender, Cuevas must also complete community service, pay restitution and court charges and undergo counseling.

greg.mellen@presstelegram.com, 562-499-1291, twitter:@gregmellen