MEXICALI, Mexico - Joseph Briceno has been suspended by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix and indicted on sexual abuse charges, but in this Mexican border town south of Calexico, Calif., he is a prominent priest, revered by parishioners as a respected man of God.
"What comes out the most is the spirit he has. He motivates people," Josephina Chavez said Saturday through a translator as she rung up bread and milk at Tito’s Mercados, just a few minute’s drive from Santa Maria de Gracia church, where Briceno led a Mass last Sunday. "Who could say anything bad about him?"
Briceno wasn’t in Mexicali on Saturday as he had left for vacation earlier in the week — sometime after an indictment against him was unsealed in Phoenix.
The results of an investigation announced Monday by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office found that Briceno sexually abused a teenage boy and his youngadult sister about 20 years ago when they attended St. Mary’s Church in Chandler. In 1992, the victims’ family reported the alleged abuse to the Phoenix diocese, which suspended Briceno the same year.
Nonetheless, the 56-yearold priest found work in Mexicali where the local diocese made him a vicar, or assistant to the pastor at Santa Maria de Gracia, with food and lodging at a house shared by several priests across the street from the church.
Today, Briceno is a fugitive with a warrant out for his arrest. Still, he continues to serve the church and the community in Mexicali.
On Saturday, church officials at Santa Maria de Gracia and at Briceno’s residence said the priest was on vacation for a month. Antonio Rodriguez, a priest who attended a baptism Saturday, said that Briceno left early last week to stay with a family in San Felipe, which is less than 125 miles south of the Mexican border.
Law enforcement can do little to bring Briceno back to face charges in the United States until extradition procedures are completed, said Bill FitzGerald, a spokesman for the county attorney’s office. The Arizona Attorney General’s Office must request extradition from a district judge in Mexico. But even if the request is granted, the fugitive can appeal extradition and possibly tie up the process for several years, said Norma Martens, an assistant attorney general.
Meanwhile, parishioners and church officials in Mexicali appeared to know little about the charges facing Briceno in the United States.
"I can tell you personally I consider him a man of God," Abegail Acosta de Capistran, who has attended Santa Maria de Gracia for 25 years, said through a translator. "He’s a good friend, and he’s a very prepared man. He likes to teach, and he worries about the community."
But when told about Briceno’s suspension and the charges he faces in the United States, Capistran removed her glasses and wiped away tears.
"Be assured I am going to pray for him that he find the light (and) accept the responsibility," she said. "We always have to face our bad conduct."
Capistran also was upset to hear that Briceno was allowed to work in Mexicali despite his suspension by the Phoenix diocese. "It was not the correct way to help him," she said.
Juan Mendez, a priest at Cathedral de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe in Mexicali, said officials of the town’s diocese were aware of the suspension when Briceno began working as a priest in Mexico. Briceno, however, is not a member of the diocese, he said. He is an affiliate given the full rights of priesthood without a contract to serve for a specified period.
"When we accepted him, it wasn’t because he did or didn’t do certain things, but it was because he spoke with the bishop here and asked for help from the bishop," Mendez said through an interpreter.
Several attempts to reach Bishop Jose Isidro Guerrero Macias on Saturday were unsuccessful.
Mendez said he was not aware of the U.S. charges against Briceno.
Capistran said she wants to help the church and the community better handle problems facing Briceno, but she wants some answers first.
"I would like to know the truth of all this," she said. "I feel very sad because I have always seen him as a man who cares about the community."