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  Phoenix Diocese to Defrock Three Priests in Sexual Misconduct

By Jyothi Sampat
Associated Press State & Local Wire
June 21, 2002

Bishop Thomas O'Brien promised Friday that the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix will move aggressively against any priest accused of sexual misconduct with minors.

"No one committing crimes against children will be protected by the church," O'Brien said.

O'Brien also announced that he was removing permanently three priests from the ministry - Rev. Joseph Lessard, Rev. Harold Graf and Rev. Joseph Briceno. He said they will not be allowed to celebrate Mass publicly, wear a clerical collar or appear publicly as a priest.

The priests have acknowledged illicit relationships with minors, said O'Brien's attorney Michael C. Manning. Their records will be submitted to the Maricopa County Attorney's office for investigation next week, he said.

O'Brien said he will move aggressively in pursuing the defrocking of three other priests whose names have surfaced publicly - Rev. George Bredemann, Rev. Mark Lehman and Rev. Wilputte Alanson Sherwood.

"We will do anything we can to restore trust and credibility," O'Brien said. "I will remove the guilty from ministry. We want to assist victims toward healing and reconciliation."

The Phoenix Diocese is among those across the country that have been criticized for their secrecy in responding to sexual abuse complaints against priests.

Earlier this week, the diocese announced it would cooperate with criminal investigators looking into allegations of sexual misconduct. Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley had threatened to subpoena church officials and records if the diocese continued to withhold information.

Romley spokesman Bill FitzGerald declined to comment after Friday's announcement when contacted by The Associated Press.

The diocese will no longer try to police itself or determine whether conduct has been proper, Manning said.

Existing misconduct policy will be improved by expanding a lay review board and training church officials about misconduct when associating with young people and minors, O'Brien said.

"We collectively acknowledge mistakes," he said. "We cannot heal the wounds of the past, but we will offer comfort."

O'Brien offered his apologies to victims and said he would share them personally if requested.

"If victims want that, need that, expect that, I will do that," he said. "I will contact them and see what assistance they need."

 
 

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