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Priest sex-case trial getting close

After two years of delays and a victory before the Arizona Supreme Court, a suspended Roman Catholic priest finally appears close to having his day in court.

A trial date for Monsignor Dale Fushek on misdemeanor sex charges may be set Thursday, when he returns to San Tan Justice Court for the first time since his case was interrupted by two years of pre-trial appeals.

A cloud of suspicion has been over Fushek, 55, since December 2004, when a lawsuit accused him of watching and performing a sex act on himself while another priest sodomized a 14-year-old boy in 1985.

Once the second highest ranking official in the Diocese of Phoenix, Fushek was placed on administrative leave and banned from participating in public ministry. In November 2005, prosecutors filed a criminal complaint charging him with misdemeanor sex acts, including indecent exposure, assault and five counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

The charges date back more than 20 years, when Fushek was pastor of St. Timothy Catholic Community in Mesa and founded Life Teen, an international ministry for teens.

Supporters of Fushek who founded a spin-off church where he preaches, and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, which considers him “a disobedient priest,” both say they are pleased to see the misdemeanor case head back to court for some sort of outcome. The diocese settled the civil case out of court.

“I’d be glad to have this behind us. To have it behind us would be great,” said Brad Kuluris, a spokesman for the Praise and Worship Center, a church founded mostly by St. Timothy parishioners who missed Fushek’s homilies and hired him as preacher.

But no one at the center, which meets in west Mesa, is dwelling on Fushek’s legal problems as they build a new religious community, he said.

“We all know the situation,” Kuluris said. “None of us are focused on that. We’re talking about misdemeanors. We’re not really worried about that.”

Kuluris said about 300 to 400 people are attending Sunday services at the center and they believe in the fundamental Christian concept of forgiveness.

“We support him (Fushek) through the good and bad, as we would anyone in our community. We’re all human,” he said. “It’s sad to use him as a scapegoat for the Diocese’s problems.”

Jim Dwyer, a spokesman for the diocese who has criticized the Praise and Worship Center’s formation and Fushek’s participation, also said he welcomes the trial. The diocese is no longer paying Fushek and is not paying for his defense.

Tom Hoidal, Fushek’s defense attorney, said of Fushek, “He’s moved on, but obviously this prosecution still weighs on him.”

But from a defense prospective, Hoidal said the delays were well worth it.

The defense attorney won a jury trial on all counts, rather than a bench trial, where a judge alone determines guilt or innocence.

The Arizona Supreme Court ruled that Fushek’s potential punishment, which includes registration as a sex offender, demonstrates the allegations are “more than simple petty offenses.”

Fushek could face up to six months in jail on each of seven counts, Hoidal said.

The ruling sets the stage for a critical jury selection process. Hoidal said a panel of six jurors eventually will deliberate on the case, rather than the 12 jurors who would deliberate on a felony murder case.

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