Orange County authorities arrested a former Catholic priest Tuesday on suspicion of sexually abusing a teenage girl in the 1970s after the man allegedly confessed to an undercover deputy posing as his out-of-wedlock daughter.
Gerald John Plesetz, 59, of Orange is the first priest to be criminally charged with sexually abusing victims in Los Angeles or Orange counties since the Roman Catholic sex scandal broke nine months ago. Plesetz, who left the priesthood in the late 1970s and works as an administrator for the Orange County Health Care Agency, was charged with three counts of oral copulation with a minor under the age of 16. It’s unclear why prosecutors did not charge him with statutory rape; they accuse Plesetz in court documents of impregnating the girl.
Officials with the Orange County district attorney’s office said that in child abuse cases, the statute of limitations does not begin until the victim comes forward no matter how long ago the alleged crime occurred. Charges must be filed within a year of that date.
Plesetz’s arrest caps a four-month investigation into crimes authorities said occurred from 1972 to 1974, when Plesetz was a pastor at St. Edward Catholic Church in Dana Point.
It comes as advocates for victims of priest abuse criticize law enforcement for not filing criminal charges in most cases.
The alleged victim, identified in the criminal complaint as “Janet M.,” first met the priest when she was a 13-year-old singer in the church choir.
Prosecutors charge that Plesetz repeatedly abused her—acts that ended when she became pregnant.
The priest met with the girl’s parents and arranged to pay all expenses related to the pregnancy, according to court records. The baby girl, Jennifer, was put up for adoption.
Authorities became aware of the incident in June, when Janet M. filed a complaint with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
Jim Amormino, a sheriff’s spokesman, said he didn’t know why she decided to come forward. “I don’t know if she lived that long with anger or what had happened,” he said.
Investigators set up a sting two weeks later.
It began July 1 when the woman called Plesetz and told him that the daughter she had given up for adoption 27 years ago wanted to meet him.
“You’re kidding me—that’s Jen, Jennifer?” said Plesetz in a secretly taped phone conversation detailed in the criminal complaint.
The next day, Plesetz met with Janet M. and an undercover sheriff’s deputy posing as her daughter.
He admitted having intercourse with the woman and impregnating her, according to the complaint. Speaking to the deputy that he believed was his daughter, Plesetz described the mother as “a young girl who was going through womanly changes and she was very aggressive. She was beautiful, talented and she knew what she wanted,” according to court records.
On July 3, sheriff’s investigators confronted Plesetz, and he confessed to the crimes, prosecutors said in court records.
But he was not arrested at that time. The case was temporarily shelved because of the high-profile July 15 kidnapping of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, which diverted department resources.Detectives continued to build their case over the last two months and arrested Plesetz at his home Tuesday. He was being held late Tuesday at the Men’s Central Jail in Santa Ana on $50,000 bail. He is scheduled to be arraigned Thursday.
Plesetz is the fifth priest from St. Edward Catholic Church to be accused of abusing minors over the last three decades. None of the other priests have been charged.
“We’re shocked, saddened and heartsick,” said Bishop Tod D. Brown of the Diocese of Orange, after being told of the arrest. “Our hearts go out to the victim.”
Advocates for victims of priest abuse described the arrest as a milestone. “I think when victims hear about this arrest it’s going to give them hope,” said Mary Grant, a Los Angeles-based director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “It’s been a long process for victims, hundreds have come forward. This is a sign that this is being taken seriously.”
While the Catholic Church in Southern California and across the nation has paid out millions of dollars to abuse victims who filed civil suits, criminal charges against priests remain relatively rare.
Hemmed in by statute of limitations laws, faded memories, little corroborating evidence and the power of the priesthood and Catholic Church, prosecutors have put few clerics in jail for sexually abusing minors.
Covertly recorded phone calls and meetings are an increasingly common device for gathering evidence in decades-old abuse cases where evidence is slim.
In Los Angeles, Catholic officials are bracing for possible indictments of 15 current and former priests on felony sex charges, according to law enforcement sources. In Orange County, a handful of priests are under criminal investigation.