Nowhere, perhaps, is Dale Fushek more at home than in front of a group of people. The embattled Mesa priest made a career from being a compelling speaker and spiritual leader to thousands.
And despite currently facing a handful of criminal charges, Fushek still leads a congregation of 700 people.
On Thursday, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that Fushek has the right to have another group, a jury, decide whether he is guilty of those charges, which include assault and exposing himself to a teenage boy.
After learning of the court’s ruling from the Tribune, Fushek said, “That’s good news.”
The former No. 2 man in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, Fushek fought for months to face a jury instead of a lone judge.
For charges as minor as many of those against Fushek — like contributing to the delinquency of a minor — defendants typically have their fates decided by a judge.
But because prosecutors say the crimes were “sexually motivated,” he and his lawyers argued a conviction could bring the very serious punishment of having to register as a sex offender. They wanted that decision to be made by a group of Fushek’s peers.
The state Supreme Court agreed. In its published opinion, Justice Andrew Hurwitz wrote that the possibility that a defendant might have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life means “Fushek has been charged with serious crimes” and should be eligible for a jury trial.
The case reached the state’s highest court after three lower courts disagreed last year about whether a jury should hear it.
Fushek, 55, was arrested in November 2005 on suspicion of several crimes, which, according to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, took place on the grounds of St. Timothy’s Catholic Community in Mesa.
The incidents in question are reported to have taken place from 1985 to 1994 between Fushek and teenage boys in the church, who have accused him of acts like kissing and touching them and having sexual discussions with them.
Fushek was formerly was the vicar general of the Phoenix diocese and is the founder of Life Teen, the national Catholic youth organization.
After the Supreme Court’s decision Thursday, Fushek referred all questions to his attorney, Thomas Hoidal, who could not be reached for comment.
The decision could be a mixed bag for someone like Fushek, said Phoenix defense lawyer Craig Mehrens, who is not involved in the case.
On one hand, juries tend to go against people accused of sexual misconduct with youths simply because they want to see somebody punished for the crime, Mehrens said.
On the other hand, charismatic defendants can often woo jurors with their natural magnetism.
“A judge is not necessarily swayed by someone’s charisma,” he said, speaking in general terms. “But a guy who can charm the birds out of the trees absolutely has a much better chance with a jury.”
That possibility worries at least one advocacy group for people who have been abused by priests.
Barbara Dorris, outreach director for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which is based in St. Louis, said juries are wiser and better-educated about possible priest abuse, but they can still be swayed.
Fushek, who is no longer part of St. Timothy’s or Life Teen, recently started a gathering called the Praise and Worship Center. Hundreds of people have continued to follow him, despite the accusations against him.
Some of the services have drawn as many as 700 people; many followed him at St. Timothy’s.
The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, which lost the Supreme Court case, issued a statement late Thursday, saying, “We will proceed with the case accordingly and we look forward to seeking closure for the victims when the matter goes to trial.”
As of Thursday, no trial date had been set.