Ex-Chandler Priest Faces Trial
Catholic Diocese Steps up Efforts to Stem Abuse
By Michael Kiefer
October 12, 2006
It took 10 years for the victim to come forward and claim he had been sexually abused by his parish priest. It took 10 more years for prosecutors to bring charges against the priest, then two more years for law enforcement to arrest him.
But on Wednesday, Joseph Briceņo, a former parish priest from Chandler, went to trial in Maricopa County Superior Court on six counts of sexual conduct with a minor, one count of attempted sexual conduct with a minor and one count of sexual abuse.
According to Deputy County Attorney Rachel Mitchell, the charges stem from Briceņo's ongoing relationship with a teenager from St. Mary's Catholic Church in Chandler. The incidents that led to the charges took place in 1982 and 1983; Briceņo could not be charged with any incidents that took place after the youth turned 18. In the sexual-abuse charge, Briceņo is accused of groping the breast of the youth's sister, who was 20 at the time.
Mitchell painted a picture of a predatory priest grooming a young man with family problems, taking him on bike rides and inviting him to share his bed in the rectory of a Chandler parish. After the seduction, Mitchell claimed, Briceņo assumed a strong role in the young man's family, even helping with finances after the teen's parents divorced.
Mitchell quoted Briceņo as telling the victim, "If it weren't for me, you'd be living under a bridge."
But the suspected abuse never came to light until the teen, then in his late 20s, approached the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix with the allegations in the early 1990s. According to Mitchell, he and his family were given a $15,000 settlement.
According to Briceņo's defense attorney, Karla Momberger, Briceņo was stripped of his duties as a priest by Bishop Thomas O'Brien and then went to work as a priest in Mexico.
The indictment was filed in 2003, when Briceņo and five other Catholic priests were charged with sexual crimes. Briceņo was arrested last December in California.
On Wednesday, Momberger told the jury that the victim was interested only in further lawsuits.
"This case is not about faith," she said. "This case is not about anything but the almighty dollar, and that's what the evidence is going to show."
And after court on Wednesday, Maria Lopez, a lay minister and a friend of Briceņo's, said the victim and his family were frequent visitors of Briceņo's for years after Briceņo was transferred to a parish in Cashion.
The victim, now 41, will retake the witness stand today. The trial is expected to last through next week. Briceņo, 60, is expected to testify, and so is O'Brien, who came under fire in 2002 for his handling of suspected sex scandals among priests and later resigned as head of the Phoenix Diocese after a 2004 hit-and-run accident.
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