Mesa Catholic Priest Gets 1 Year in Jail

By Gary Grado
January 29, 2005

A judge threw a Mesa priest into jail for a year Friday, leaving his friends and parishioners from Queen of Peace Catholic Church shaking their heads and suggesting he was the true victim.

Judge Sherry Stephens of Maricopa County Superior Court also ordered the Rev. Karl LeClaire to serve three years probation and register as a sex offender as punishment for pleading guilty to committing a sexually motivated aggravated assault against a teenage parishioner in 1996.

LeClaire admitted to giving the teenager, now a 23-year-old Navy recruit, a sensual massage. One year was the longest Stephens could sentence LeClaire under an Oct. 28 plea agreement.

"I'm disappointed," said Anthony Chacon, 24, who said he has known LeClaire and the victim for years. "There was a lot that wasn't recognized."

Chacon said he doesn't believe Stephens took into account LeClaire's positive impact he had on the Queen of Peace community when he was the church's pastor and school's principal.

He resigned in 2001 after the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix got word of the allegations. "He'll never get the credit he deserves," Chacon said.

LeClaire smiled as he turned to apologize to the victim and his family, who sat together in the front row of a packed courtroom.

The victim, whom the Tribune is not naming, said nothing to the court and was escorted out a back door by Maricopa County sheriff's deputies.

LeClaire also apologized to parishioners "because this has caused all of you such pain."

LeClaire said he's been robbed of his priesthood and robbed of his friends, and asked to be spared jail time to care for his ailing mother.

"If I go to jail, she'll die," he said.

When Stephens imposed the jail sentence, a man who sat with LeClaire's friends cursed.

Nancy Tudor, a parishioner who worked closely with LeClaire and the victim, said she still doesn't believe anything inappropriate occurred because she would have noticed.

"Someone was wanting to extort money," Tudor said.

Rachel Mitchell, the case prosecutor who also heads the downtown Phoenix Sex Crimes Bureau of the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, said sex offenders manipulate people in order to get near children.

"It is hard to recognize people you know could do such a thing, because they keep up such a facade," Mitchell said.

She said LeClaire groomed the victim for sexual abuse by lavishing him with gifts, taking him on trips and getting close to his family.

LeClaire did more than just violate a position of trust, Mitchell said.

"He was God's emissary to this victim," she said. "He destroyed his faith."


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