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  Priest to Be First to Stand Trial on Abuse
Barring Deal, Jury Selection to Begin

By Jim Walsh
The Arizona Republic [Arizona]
October 18, 2004

A Catholic priest formerly assigned to a Mesa church would become the first to stand trial on sex crime charges this week, barring a last-minute plea bargain.

A number of priests, dating from Father George Bredemann in 1988 to former priest Lawrence Joseph Lovell in September, have pleaded guilty and thus avoided potentially embarrassing trials and even longer sentences.

But an attorney for Karl LeClaire said his client is adamant about his innocence and is likely to defy the trend by standing trial later this week, with jury selection scheduled for Thursday before Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Sherry Stephens.

"It's not an indefensible case," said Dan Sheperd, LeClaire's defense attorney, noting there is no physical evidence and the case boils down to one person's word against another's.

Cindi Nanetti, who heads the county attorney's sex crimes unit, said she could not recall a case involving a priest standing trial in the 16 years she has been working for the office.

LeClaire, 48, who no longer functions as a priest, is accused of sex acts involving the same boy when he was 14 in 1996 and again in 1999, just before the victim turned 18.

The charges of child molestation and sexual conduct with a minor could lead to a 10- to 24-year prison sentence if LeClaire is convicted.

LeClaire, the former principal of Queen of Peace Catholic School in downtown Mesa, is accused of touching the boy inappropriately while giving him massages.

Prosecutor Rachel Mitchell wrote in court papers that LeClaire bought the boy expensive gifts, including a suit, laptop computer and a stereo, lent him money and took him on trips to the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Italy and Puerto Rico.

Defense attorneys argue in court records that the boy made the allegations for financial reasons and to get more attention from his mother.

Bruce Feder, an attorney who formerly defended LeClaire, wrote that the allegations surfaced in 2001, after the victim and his stepfather failed to repay loans from the church. LeClaire had just initiated collection proceedings.

Mitchell rejected a plea offer pitched by Sheperd in August that would have allowed LeClaire to plead guilty to aggravated assault.

A plea deal still could surface at a pretrial conference Tuesday or before jury selection.

 
 

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