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Ex-Priest From Fort Myers Pleads Guilty To Arizona Sex Abuse

Jan 22, 2003 | Naples Daily News A former Catholic priest and convicted sex offender who moved to Lee County a decade ago to start a new life has pleaded guilty to two counts of molesting an Arizona teenager.

John Maurice Giandelone, 55, was arrested in December at the Fort Myers home he shared with his wife, who directs the Lee County Health Department. He was quickly extradited to Phoenix and struck a deal with prosecutors investigating a possible sex abuse cover-up in Arizona's largest diocese.

The Jan. 9 plea agreement calls for Giandelone to serve between nine and 22 months in prison, with an additional three years of probation.

As part of the deal, the ex-priest agreed to help Maricopa County prosecutors and a special grand jury investigate "acts of criminal sexual misconduct and obstruction of justice by various representatives and employees of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix," according to a copy of the plea. He will be sentenced Friday, Feb. 7.

Giandelone admitted to sexually abusing a 16-year-old boy between June 1979 and February 1980, little more than a year after he was ordained in the priesthood. Six years later after he was quietly transferred to another parish in the Phoenix area once his first victim's parents complained to church leaders Giandelone was convicted of having oral sex with a 15-year-old boy and spent six months in jail.

Giandelone left the priesthood in 1992 and later moved to Florida, where he remains on the state's list of sexual offenders. Until his arrest, he lived in the Waterford Village community with Dr. Judith Harter, his wife, since April 2000, state records show.

Neither Harter nor Giandelone's Arizona attorney could be reached for comment Tuesday.

On Jan. 17, Giandelone appeared before a grand jury investigating the role of the Rev. Thomas J. O'Brien, bishop of the Phoenix diocese since 1981, The Arizona Republic reported. Prior to taking charge of the diocese, O'Brien worked as diocesan chancellor, secretary to the bishop and, by 1978, vicar general, the diocese's second-in-command under then-Bishop James Rausch.

In that role, O'Brien met with the parents of 16-year-old Benjamin Kulina, whose decision to come forward last year led to Giandelone's arrest. According to Kulina's attorney, O'Brien told the boy's parents to keep quiet. Kulina, 39, is now a police lieutenant in Mesa, Ariz., and has agreed to go public with his case.

After abusing Kulina, Giandelone was transferred to a parish in Chandler, Ariz., 10 miles south of Phoenix, where he was arrested in 1984 and convicted of sexual misconduct with the other teen the following year.

According to a case summary released by Maricopa County prosecutors, Giandelone "groomed" Kulina for sexual abuse soon after becoming youth minister and associate pastor at St. Joseph's parish in Phoenix.

Investigators said Giandelone gave Kulina beer and marijuana in hopes of loosening the teen's inhibitions, once in the church rectory and a second time on an overnight camping trip.

In addition to the time behind bars, Giandelone also faces a fine of up to $150,000 and restitution payments to Kulina. He must also submit to DNA testing and register as a sex offender in Arizona.

In Southwest Florida, two priests with area ties remain under investigation by the Diocese of Venice: the Rev. William Romero, a 65-year-old LaBelle resident who retired from active ministry 10 years ago but previously served at St. Ann Catholic School in Naples; and the Rev. Neil Flemming, a friend and adviser to Diocese of Venice Bishop John Nevins, who, until his suspension, was diocesan treasurer. Flemming, who served at St. William Catholic Church in Naples from 1982 to 1991, retired in 2000.

Those cases have been open since May 2002, but under recent revisions to the Catholic Church's sex abuse policy, the inquiry will likely extend for at least another year. The Vatican-ordered mandate requires confidential church tribunals for accused priests who contest the charges.

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