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Accused Ex-Priest Reveals His Struggle

Crime: Facing sex abuse charges, the Orange man says: 'I regret and have shame about this.'

September 27, 2002|CHRISTINE HANLEY and MONTE MORIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A former priest charged with sexually abusing a teenage girl with whom he fathered a child nearly three decades ago expressed regret Thursday for what happened and said he's praying for the woman.

In an interview a day after he was released from jail on $50,000 bail, Gerald J. Plesetz spoke candidly about his struggles in the Roman Catholic Church and his decision to give up the priesthood soon after the woman--identified by authorities as "Janet M."--became pregnant.

"I regret and have shame about this," Plesetz said. "I pray and sincerely hope that Janet isn't scarred from this."

Plesetz, 59, was arrested Tuesday on three counts of oral copulation with a minor under the age of 16, becoming the first priest to be criminally charged with sexual abuse in Los Angeles and Orange counties since the Roman Catholic sex scandal broke nine months ago. On Wednesday, Los Angeles authorities arrested two other priests accused of molestation.

The Orange County Sheriff's Department arrested Plesetz after he allegedly confessed to an undercover officer posing as his out-of-wedlock daughter.

Plesetz would not discuss specifics of the allegations against him, saying he has not yet talked to an attorney.

The closest Plesetz came to explaining his relationship with Janet M. was when he described how lonely it was working in south Orange County during the 1970s, when the alleged crimes occurred.

He was assigned to St. Edward Catholic Church in Dana Point, where Janet M. sang in the choir. The area, he said, was far removed from the fellow priests he befriended through the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

"Dana Point was an outpost of the diocese.... You lose a sense of community and camaraderie with your fellow priests," he said. "I was in an isolated situation."

Plesetz said he left the church because he wanted to have a family.

"I left once I was clear about what I wanted in my life," he said.

He married his wife, Sandy, a flight attendant, in December 1977.

The couple had a daughter in 1984. A year later, Sandy died of cancer. Plesetz has been a single father ever since.

With his second daughter, now 18, never straying far from his side during Thursday's interview, Plesetz said he's tried to be honest with everyone close to him about his first daughter. The girl was given up for adoption and, according to Plesetz, has been receiving child support payments from him over the years.

"Anyone I ever got close to knew," he said. "It would not be fair for them not to know."

But the bishop of a church where Plesetz served as a part-time priest said Thursday he was shocked when he heard the allegations this summer.

Plesetz served at St. Matthew Church in Orange from 1997 until July of this year, according to Bishop Peter Hickman. St. Matthew Church is affiliated with the Old Catholic ecumenical movement and allows priests to marry.

Hickman received a letter in July from the Los Angeles Archdiocese reporting allegations of misconduct against Plesetz.

Hickman said he met with Plesetz and another priest on July 16 and confronted him with the accusations.

"He said it was true and he apologized for not telling us before," Hickman said.

"He said he had carried this for the last 27 or 28 years and that he has always regretted it. He feels he was very immature at the time and that it was a very foolish and very terrible thing that he did. It happened when he was newly ordained."

Plesetz said he plans to return to his job as an administrator with the Orange County Health Care Agency next week. He took the job in 1986 because it allowed him to help people--as a priest would--while being allowed to have a family.

At his home in Orange on Thursday, he tried to relax by strumming his guitar and--in what he called a symbolic gesture--listening to Bob Dylan sing "I Shall Be Released."

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