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  Defiant Priest Says Masses Will Go on
Bishop Had Asked Him to Retire after Financial and Sexual Scandals

By Brooks Egerton
Dallas Morning News
October 23, 2003

An embattled Dallas priest vowed Wednesday to continue celebrating Mass in defiance of Catholic Bishop Charles Grahmann and lambasted top diocesan representatives as "the three stooges."

"They can't strip me of everything," the Rev. Justin Lucio said. "Only God can do that, and they're not God."

The bishop ended Father Lucio's monthly stipend and asked him to retire after The Dallas Morning News reported this year on financial and sexual scandals involving the priest, diocesan spokesman Bronson Havard revealed. He declined to comment on any of Father Lucio's statements or to discuss how the diocese might respond to the disobedience.

Father Lucio has been leading Sunday worship recently at Casita Maria, an immigration-counseling center for Latinos that he founded after Bishop Grahmann's predecessor removed him from parish work in the late 1980s. The priest is executive director of the Oak Cliff charity, which receives no diocesan funds.

Casita's future remains in doubt because of federal immigration and tax inquiries begun in response to The News' reports, which showed that the charity had collected millions from poor clients and spent large sums to benefit Father Lucio and his associates.

Immigration and IRS officials declined to comment on the status of their investigations.

The Texas attorney general also investigated and required Casita to make a series of reforms to avoid litigation that could shut down the agency. State and charity officials said most of the reforms are in place, including Father Lucio's resignation from the board of directors and a plan for him and other employees to repay Casita funds they spent for their own benefit or borrowed interest-free.

State officials said that the improprieties they found were largely the result of ignorance. Father Lucio has denied all wrongdoing and described himself as a victim of a plot to destroy Casita.

This week, he and board president Gonzalo Aguilera announced plans to expand the agency's services. They will raise the necessary money, they said, by selling their offices and a DeSoto house in which Father Lucio has lived virtually rent-free.

Father Lucio, who undergoes regular kidney dialysis and has other medical problems, said Bishop Grahmann cut him off financially "at the time I needed it the most." He said he is spending $ 2,000 a month on health care beyond what Casita's insurance covers.

"That is the inhumanity of the church," he said. "They simply don't care."

Casita officials would not reveal the value of the priest's total compensation from the charity. State law governing nonprofits requires most of them to make such basic financial information public upon request.

In its deal with the attorney general, Casita agreed to follow the nonprofit law. But its attorney, Frank Sommerville, now says that his client is exempt from the public-disclosure provision because it takes in so little in the way of contributions.

Officials in the attorney general's office said that point is debatable and that they will not require Casita to comply with the public-disclosure provision.

In recent years, Casita's tax returns have shown that it relies almost entirely on client fees and receives virtually no donations. Yet to win nonprofit status from the IRS and to gain certification to operate from immigration authorities, Casita promised to offer services for little or no charge and to raise outside funds.

Father Lucio said that Bishop Grahmann would not meet with him to discuss retirement benefits and other issues but instead had delegated these matters to his "three stooges" - Mary Edlund, the diocesan chancellor; the Rev. Glenn "Duffy" Gardner, vicar general; and Dennis Sullivan, a diocesan attorney. He referred to Ms. Edlund as "cutthroat" and said Bishop Grahmann never meets with priests he considers "the lower ding-a-lings."

Father Lucio said he had never been told not to celebrate Mass, but Mr. Havard has said the bishop limited his activities to "the civic matters of immigrants" more than a decade ago.

That restriction came after a series of events that began with allegations from two young Mexican men that Father Lucio had pressured them to have sex. The priest was removed from an Oak Cliff parish and sued the parish leader who had first reported the men's allegations to diocese leaders.

Church officials said they could not substantiate the allegations and briefly returned Father Lucio to part-time parish work, then limited him to nonclerical work at Casita after he sometimes failed to show up for Mass.

Father Lucio dropped his lawsuit after testifying, in a pretrial deposition, that he sometimes handled parishioners' genitals when they had health concerns. At a news conference announcing Casita's expansion plans, he said he had been referring to what he called Hispanics' propensity to show off surgical scars in the "genital area."

To demonstrate how he defined "genital area," he approached a reporter, lifted up his full-length black robe and pushed down sweat pants far enough to reveal what appeared to be a scar on his lower abdomen.

 
 

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