O'Brien Bans 3 Errant Priests from Ministry

By Joseph A. Reaves
Arizona Republic [Phoenix]
June 22, 2002

Bishop Thomas O'Brien vowed Friday that the Phoenix Diocese will lead thenation in cracking down on child molesters and promptly backed his words bybanning three priests from active ministry for the rest of their lives.

O'Brien's dramatic move eclipsed another important breakthrough by BishopManuel Moreno of Tucson. Moreno named 15 priests accused of sexual misconduct,but five of those priests are dead, and the others were suspended from activeduty years ago.

Two of the priests O'Brien expelled also were suspended, but one, the Rev.Harold Graf, 60, was an active associate pastor in the midst of changingparishes in the Valley.

The twin Arizona announcements are some of the first, and most-sweeping,steps taken since the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted overwhelminglyin Dallas this month to approve a charter that requires church leaders topurge known sex offenders.

"No one in this diocese who commits crimes against youths will be protectedby the church," O'Brien said at a news conference that marked his firstsignificant comment on the sex-abuse scandal in months.

"I will suspend clerics when allegations of sexual misconduct are raisedand remove the guilty from ministry."

O'Brien then announced he was removing Graf, the Rev. Joseph Lessard andthe Rev. Joseph Brecino from active ministry for life.

The bishop said all three were banned for life from celebrating Mass inpublic, wearing clerical dress or identifying themselves as priests.

Lessard and Brecino had been removed from active duty years ago but weretechnically still eligible to perform priestly functions.

Graf was the only active priest in Phoenix or Tucson to be summarilyousted. He most recently served as associate pastor at St. Joan of Arc Churchin Phoenix and was to report as associate pastor of St. Elizabeth Seton Churchin Sun City on July 1.

Single incident

Attorney Michael C. Manning, who is coordinating the new housecleaning effortby the diocese, said Graf was involved in only one incident of improperconduct with a minor 24 years ago and had an unblemished record since.

"By all accounts, he was a great priest," Manning said. "It's a shame."

O'Brien appeared shaken after the harsh discipline. He looked pale as hefaced two dozen reporters in a stark conference room at the CatholicHealthcare Building in central Phoenix.

"On behalf of the church and the Diocese of Phoenix and in my own name, Iapologize for any mistakes or errors in judgment and ask for your prayers andforgiveness," O'Brien said.

In addition to banning Graf, Lessard and Brecino, the bishop confirmed thatformal procedures were under way to laicize, or defrock, three other priestswho served in the Phoenix Diocese. All three were sentenced to prison for sexoffenses years ago.

Defrocking is a length process that requires Vatican approval.

The three priests who will be subject to the defrocking process are theRevs. Wilputte Alanson "Lan" Sherwood, George Bredemann and Mark Lehman.Sherwood and Bredemann are currently in the Arizona State PrisonComplex-Lewis. Lehman was released from prison in February and is onprobation, working at a warehouse in Mesa.

O'Brien stopped short of imposing a lifetime ban against another priest,the Rev. Patrick Colleary, whose troubled history indirectly forced thediocese to adopt a more open policy on reporting sexual offenses. The bishopsaid the allegations against the three priests he banned were "cut and dry,"while Colleary was still under investigation.

Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley convened a grand jury to investigateColleary, who was accused of a series of sexual offenses in several Valleyparishes. Colleary is on administrative leave but has not been banned forlife.

The grand jury already has received 965 pages of documents about Collearyalone. Manning, O'Brien's attorney, said all of the information on Graf,Lessard and Brecino will be forwarded next week.

Gathering evidence

A committee appointed by the church will be set up in the next few days toexamine church records going back to 1973 to determine whether evidence aboutany more priests will be passed along to the grand jury.

That committee will be made up entirely of lay people and will be headed byManning and Jim Ahearn, a retired FBI agent who served as chief of the FBIoffices in Phoenix, San Francisco and Boston before retiring to Arizona in1994.

Ahearn, a Catholic, said he was assured he would be given a free hand inthe investigation.

"We will be aggressive," he said. "I think aggressive will probably turnout to be understatement."

Barnett Lotstein, a top aide to Romley, attended O'Brien's news conferenceand underscored the county attorney's confidence that the diocese's committeewill produce all files dealing with child sexual abuse.

The 15 priests linked to allegations of sexual abuse in Tucson included sixwho worked in Scottsdale, Mesa or Phoenix before the Phoenix Diocese wasestablished in 1969. Five of the six are dead.

The other, the Rev. Clemens Schlueter, retired in 1990. He worked at OurLady of Perpetual Help in Scottsdale from 1961 to 1963.


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