Hispanic Parishes Burdened by Priests' Sex Abuse

By Joseph A. Reaves and Elvia Diaz
The Arizona Republic [Phoeniz AZ]
June 13, 2003

Eight of the 11 priests criminally accused or convicted of sexual misconduct with minors in the Phoenix Diocese committed their offenses in parishes with large and often predominantly Hispanic populations, according to an analysis by The Arizona Republic.

Six of those priests later were transferred to other parishes with large Hispanic populations, and four were accused of reoffending after they relocated.

In many instances, the data did not directly reveal whether the diocese knew of the abuse allegations at the time of the transfers. Nor is it known whether Bishop Thomas O'Brien in most cases intended to place accused priests in Hispanic parishes.

But the analysis shows that the offenses and reassignments fell heavily on largely Hispanic parishes.

"We can categorically deny that any priest was moved to a Hispanic parish with the intent of hiding past sexual abuse misconduct," said Kim Sue Lia Perkes, spokeswoman for the diocese.

"The bishop, having served in Hispanic parishes himself, has a strong commitment to the Hispanic people. Because of his commitment . . . priests are generally put into service for at least some period of time at Hispanic parishes or Hispanic ministries so they can learn how best to meet the needs of this growing population."

The findings, compiled from legal records and personnel assignments, follow claims by some Hispanic leaders that troubled priests frequently were assigned to communities where the faithful are historically less likely to question the authority of the church.

"It's obvious the bishop targeted Latino communities because they are the most vulnerable," said Rep. Robert Meza, a Phoenix Democrat, who last week led a group of Hispanic legislators criticizing O'Brien. "That's institutional racism. He should resign immediately."

Rep. Ben Miranda, another Phoenix Democrat who spoke out against the bishop last week, said he was troubled by the prevalence of abusive priests in Hispanic communities.

"The question remains: What motivated the placements of those priests in predominately Hispanic areas?" Miranda said.

Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, a prominent Latina, said this week that she didn't have time to discuss the issue. Wilcox stood behind the bishop at a news conference last week, just hours after news came out that O'Brien had signed an immunity agreement acknowledging that he transferred "offending priests to situations where children could be further victimized."

The Office of Hispanic Ministry says that Hispanics account for about 200,000 of the 478,000 Catholics officially registered with the diocese. Some diocesan officials have said in the past that they believe another 200,000 Hispanics are actively worshiping without registering.

Forty of the 89 parishes in the diocese offer Mass in Spanish, a clear indication of the Hispanic influence in those congregations. All of the 11 priests indicted or convicted so far spent at least part of their careers in at least one of those parishes.

Last week, Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley announced the indictments of six priests, the most criminal charges brought at one time against Catholic clergy anywhere in the nation.

Based on information provided in those indictments, five of the six were accused of molesting minors in parishes that are predominantly Hispanic today and historically have attracted large numbers of Hispanic faithful.

The lone exception was the Rev. Patrick O. Colleary, who was indicted in an incident that took place between Oct. 15, 1978, and Dec. 25, 1978, at Holy Spirit parish in Tempe. Colleary, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by at least one other male minor and two females, was transferred three times from 1984 to '92 to parishes with significant Hispanic populations.

Court records and testimony from two victims showed that O'Brien knew of at least one of the sexual allegations against Colleary before he transferred the priest into the Hispanic parishes.

In another incident, the Rev. John Maurice Giandelone told investigators he was transferred to largely Hispanic St. Mary's parish in Chandler in 1980 just weeks after O'Brien learned the priest was accused of molesting an altar boy. Giandelone was sentenced to prison in March for that incident. Court records show that he molested a second boy about a year after his transfer to St. Mary's.

Of the six indicted priests, one was transferred out of state after his alleged offense and another remained in the same parish for the duration of his career. But the other four were assigned to predominantly Hispanic parishes after the accusations that led to their indictments.

The priest who remained in the same parish, the Rev. Karl LeClaire, was promoted to principal of Queen of Peace School in Mesa in 1996-97, several years after he was accused of serially molesting a teenage boy. Those accusations were made in a federal lawsuit filed last year and since dismissed because of jurisdictional questions. M. Paul Fischer, the attorney who filed the suit, said Monday that he will make the same allegations in a new suit to be filed in Maricopa County Superior Court.

In addition to those allegations, prosecutors announced last week that LeClaire had been indicted on two felony counts of sexual conduct with a minor and dangerous crimes against children. One charge involves an incident in 1996 when LeClaire was principal of Queen of Peace. The other stems from a 1999 allegation.

In 1998, LeClaire made headlines in The Arizona Republic criticizing Mesa police for failing to notify his parish and school that a convicted sex offender was living nearby.

"I am responsible for those children," LeClaire said at the time. "I have to somehow protect them."

Besides the six priests indicted last week, five others have been convicted of sexual misconduct with children since 1985.

The only one of those five never accused of committing an offense in a predominantly Hispanic parish was the Rev. Mark Lehman, who was a priest for just 25 months from June 1988 to July 1990. Lehman was assigned to St. Thomas the Apostle parish in Phoenix and spent 10 years in prison for felony sexual abuse and dangerous crimes against children.

Of the 11 priests indicted or jailed for criminal sexual misconduct, four never were transferred within the Phoenix Diocese after their alleged offenses.

Two moved out of state, one remained in the same parish and the fourth was convicted and sent to prison.

The only priest who was moved from a largely Hispanic parish into an Anglo-dominated community was the Rev. Wilputte Lan Sherwood, who admitted having sex with 1,840 men and boys, including 22 minors, during a 10-year stretch when he worked at St. Henry's parish in Buckeye and then St. Benedict's in Chandler.

Sherwood, who called himself "a statistics freak," kept detailed records of his sexual encounters, ranking each partner on a 40-point scale with up to 10 points each for face, body, experience and personality. He is in prison completing the final months of a 10-year sentence and has been permanently removed from ministry.

Reporter Michael Clancy contributed to this article.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.