A retired priest who once worked in the Catholic Diocese of Tucson was convicted Thursday of sexually abusing a South Tucson boy in the early 1980s, although he didn’t show up for his trial.
The Rev. Thomas P. Purcell, who briefly worked in Tucson as a visiting priest with the local diocese, is now considered a fugitive, prosecutors say.
Purcell is facing the rest of his life in prison. A warrant was issued for his arrest on Tuesday. He was last known to be living in Bullhead City.
Purcell’s defense attorney, Leo Plowman, did not return a phone call Thursday afternoon.
Jurors deliberated about two hours Thursday before convicting the 61-year-old Purcell of three counts of sexual conduct with a minor and one count of attempted sexual conduct with a minor. Thursday’s verdict marks the first local conviction of a Catholic priest on sexual abuse charges since the 1970s.
“I hope it gives other victims of priest molestation the courage to come forward because when we can prosecute a case, we will prosecute a case,” said Deputy Pima County Attorney Kathleen Mayer. “We know that there are a lot more still out there who could bring charges.”
Under the law at the time of the incidents, Purcell faces between five and 14 years in prison on each count a total of 42 years. If he were convicted of committing the same crimes today, he would face 15 to 27 years in prison on each count.
Purcell worked at St. Odilia’s Catholic Church from 1982 to 1983, and then went on to Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Nogales in 1983 and 1984. He has not worked in the Tucson diocese since 1984.
The convictions were related to a sexual relationship he had with a 13-year-old boy for nearly two years between January 1982 and December 1983.
“I don’t think the diocese has any position on the trial other than it expects the course of criminal justice to take place. And certainly the diocese has expressed interest in providing counseling support to the victim,” diocese spokesman Fred Allison said Thursday.
Allison, who attended part of the trial, said he was surprised that Purcell did not attend. The diocese last June released Purcell’s name on a list of priests with “credible” accusations of child sexual abuse against them.
In the courthouse hallway Thursday, the victim’s mother and sister thanked jurors for their verdicts, though both women declined to comment to the media. Several jurors also declined to comment to an Arizona Daily Star reporter as they left.
The Star is not naming members of the family because the man is a sexual assault victim.
Mayer said the victim, who is now 33 and lives in California, came forward “because he couldn’t deal with the anger and pain anymore.” The man in May told South Tucson police in May that Purcell molested him in the church rectory at St. Odilia, 7570 N. Paseo del Norte, and also in the boy’s South Tucson home.
Mayer said Purcell manipulated the boy by providing his family with clothing and food. She said there was no father in the household, and the young teen’s mother struggled to raise her five children. Mayer said Purcell purchased the first new shoes the boy had ever owned.
“This man was like a gift from God to her family, a very well-respected member of the community,” Mayer said.
For about eight months, the boy lived with Purcell. Purcell told the boy’s mother that he was helping the boy with his schoolwork, and Mayer said Purcell frightened the boy into not telling.
“He threatened him with turning his family over to the Border Patrol, as they were not legal at the time,” Mayer said.
Mayer said the County Attorney’s Office was able to prosecute Purcell because the abuse occurred after a 1978 change in law.
As of August 2001, Arizona has no statute of limitations on sex crimes, giving a current victim of a sex crime the leeway to file charges decades into the future. But that law was not retroactive. The statute for sex crimes that occurred before 1978 say charges must have been filed within five years of the alleged offense.
For sex crimes that occurred after 1978, the law says charges must be filed within seven years of the alleged offense, or seven years from when the incident could have been reasonably reported to authorities.
Failure to report an incident of child abuse is a misdemeanor under Arizona law, and charges must be filed within one year.