The history of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Chandler is rich and painful.
Since 1968, about 26 priests have ministered to this parish in a booming city that has been transformed from a rural farming community. Four of those priests have been accused of sexual conduct with minors.
One was convicted and served time in jail. Two were indicted by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office within the last month. Nearly all of the men have subsequently been banned from priestly duties by Bishop Thomas J. O’Brien.
St. Mary’s shoulders the unfortunate record of being one of the few churches in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix to have had four priests with allegations of sexual abuse at its pulpit, according to diocese and court records.
The Revs. Harold Graf, Henry Perez, John Giandelone, and Joseph Briceno have been associate pastors at St. Mary’s, each of them for less than three years between 1972 and 1985.
Their tenures at the church were short, but devastating for some parishioners. Three of the four priests’ victims were at St. Mary’s, according to records from the court and the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office. Revelations of abuse put the priests under investigation, and the church through a painful legacy.
"That any child has been abused or has been taken advantage of is an immense distress to me, and that this occurred in the parish that I am responsible for," said the Rev. Robert Clements, pastor of St. Mary’s. "It’s an immense concern and an immense sadness. How I respond to that makes all the difference in the world."
Clements said he is responding openly and honestly to his congregation. In a homily he delivered last Sunday, Clements did not mince words.
"Anger is the natural human response to injustice. Must we always be certain, though, that true injustice has taken place. In this instance, you bet it has."
Herminia Nicholaus, who grew up at St. Mary’s, said she remembers Perez, Giandelone and Briceno. Ni cholaus has told investigators Briceno sexually abused her and a relative about 20 years ago. Nicholaus said her faith keeps her coming back to St. Mary’s, but its history of having priests accused of sexual misconduct is curious.
"I think people do question that. Why (did) so many of them come through here. Is it just coincidence?"
An official of the Phoenix diocese said it is.
"We don’t blame anyone for having questions about that. We’re saying to ourselves how horrible that four of them ended up at that parish," said Kim Sue Lia Perkes, a spokeswoman for the Phoenix diocese. "But the bottom line is . . . there was no intentional movement of those priests there to hide anyone’s past."
Having concluded a oneyear investigation of the diocese, Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley on June 2 announced the indictment of six current or former priests, including Perez, who is deceased, and Briceno, who has been a priest at Santa Maria de Gracia church in Mexicali, Mexico. He now is considered a fugitive.
Romley also announced an unprecedented settlement with O’Brien, who was granted limited immunity from prosecution for admitting that he allowed priests he knew were accused of sexual misconduct to work with children. Romley said he had enough evidence to charge O’Brien with obstruction of justice for covering up abuse.
O’Brien, however, has since said that he committed no crime. The four priests at St. Mary’s were a case in point, Perkes said Friday.
"We didn’t know anything about these priests at the time they were at St. Mary’s," she said.
Investigative documents pertaining to Giandelone reveal that during a 2002 interview with a Maricopa County investigator, former priest Joseph Ladensack recalled that in 1981 he learned from a diocese director of youth ministry that teenager Ben Kulina was allegedly abused by Giandelone, then a priest at St. Joseph’s Parish in Phoenix. Giandelone has since pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting Kulina, who has spoken publicly about the incident.
Ladensack said he arranged for the director of youth ministry to talk with then-Bishop James Rausch, who dispatched then-Monsignor O’Brien to talk with the Kulina family. Rausch told Ladensack the family did not wish to press charges, according to records.
In 1980, Giandelone was named associate pastor at St. Mary’s, where he met teenager Henry Takata. By the time Giandelone pleaded guilty in 1985 to sexually assaulting Takata, O’Brien had succeeded Rauch as bishop.
Today, St. Mary’s history of having four priests accused of sexual misconduct seems remote to parishioners, many of whom joined the church many years later, said Clements.
On Friday morning, nearly 100 people attended Mass at St. Mary’s, where Toni Kronschnabel said news of priests accused of sexual misconduct is saddening, but it hasn’t hurt her faith or her church’s future.
"I just understand that it was a sad occurrence," she said. "We will live through it."