Priest on trial for sex abuse takes plea deal

KVOA News, Tuscon/October 20, 2006

Phoenix -- A former Catholic priest being tried on charges that he sexually abused a teen more than 20 years ago reached a plea deal with prosecutors Tuesday.

Joseph Briceno pleaded guilty to two felony counts of sexual conduct with a minor and faces up to 1.8 years in prison on the first count and three years probation on the second count. He also will have to register as a sex offender.

The county attorney agreed to dismiss four other counts of sexual conduct with a minor, one count of attempted sexual contact and one count of sexual abuse.

The incidents happened in 1982 and 1983.

The deal ended a trial which began last week. The abuse came to light in the early 1990s when the victim approached the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix to complain. He and his family eventually were paid a $15,000 settlement.

Briceno, 60, was one of seven priests indicted in Maricopa County in 2003 on sex abuse charges. He was captured in Mexico in December and has been jailed since.

"You can run, but you can't hide. We had a number of objectives, and we accomplished them all," said Barnett Lotstein, special assistant county attorney.

Briceqo'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.

"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 opening day of the trial last week, Deputy Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell told the jury the charges arose from Briceno's relationship with a teenager from St. Mary's Catholic Church in Chandler. She painted a picture of a predatory priest grooming a young man with family problems by taking him on bike rides and becoming involved in his life. She said he then seduced the teen, and took on a strong role in his family, even helping with finances after the teen's parents divorced.

Mitchell quoted Briceno as telling the victim, "If it weren't for me, you'd be living under a bridge."

Briceno's lawyer had argued that the alleged victim was only trying to lay a foundation so he could sue the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix.

A sentencing date has not yet been set.

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