Ex-Priest Gets Plea Deal in Child-Sex Case
Longest Sentence Will Be Less Than 2 Years in Prison

By Jahna Berry
Arizona Republic
October 18, 2006

A former parish priest could receive nearly two years in prison for seducing a teenage boy from St. Mary's Catholic Church in Chandler in the 1980s.

Joseph Briceņo, 60, pleaded guilty to two felony counts of sexual conduct with a minor on Tuesday.

Under a plea agreement, one count carries a maximum penalty of 1.875 years in prison and the second count carries a maximum penalty of three years' probation.

Briceņo's sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 15.

The teenager, now 41, and his sister, whom Briceņo also has been accused of assaulting when she was 20, were in the courtroom with family members on Tuesday.

As the family walked to the elevators, one of the relatives said, "The plea speaks for itself."

An official for the County Attorney's Office called the case a "complete victory."

Briceņo is now a felon, he must register as a sex offender, and the victims will not worry about the former priest appealing a guilty verdict, said Barnett Lotstein, special assistant county attorney.

"This was not a lenient sentence," Lotstein said, adding the County Attorney's Office aggressively pursued Briceņo. He was indicted in 2003 and was arrested in California in 2005.

"You can run, but you can't hide. We had a number of objectives, and we accomplished them all," he said.

An advocacy group for abuse victims, however, had mixed feelings about the news.

"We are grateful that he will have to register as a sex offender," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

"But the sentence will be so short that we hope that other victims and witnesses will find the strength to go forward," Clohessy said. "Ultimately, we would like to see him prosecuted again and jailed for a longer period."

Briceņo's defense attorney, Karla Momberger, said the plea was a good result for her client, who initially faced an eight-count indictment and could have spent years in prison.

It's significant that prosecutors offered a deal shortly after she began cross-examining a victim, the attorney said.

When Briceņo is sentenced in December, he will have already served roughly a year behind bars, Momberger said. Once that time is factored into the sentence, it's likely that he faces a relatively short sentence, she said.

"He has long admitted that he should not have been involved with someone that young," Momberger said, adding that her client disclosed the relationship to church officials and that her client has many letters of support.

During the trial, Momberger argued that Briceņo was stripped of his duties as a priest and then went to work as a priest in Mexico. The victim, she said, was motivated by money.

He got a $15,000 settlement after he approached the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix with the allegations in the early 1990s, Deputy County Attorney Rachel Mitchell has said.

The plea agreement ends a two-decade ordeal for the victims.

During the trial, Mitchell painted a picture of a predatory priest who groomed a young man with family problems. The priest took him on bike rides, invited him to share his bed and assumed a strong role in the young man's family after the teen's parents divorced, Mitchell said.

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.


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