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12:22 PM Thu, Nov. 15th

Judge upholds plea deal in priest's molest case

PRESCOTT – A judge ruled Friday that the defense did not present sufficient evidence to justify withdrawal from the plea agreement that former Catholic priest Lawrence Joseph Lovell agreed to enter on Oct. 23.

Lawrence Joseph Lovell

Lovell, who pleaded guilty to two Class 2 felonies of child molestation and sexual conduct with a minor, filed a motion to withdraw on the premises that his previous attorney, Alex Harris, was ineffective.

Citing various legal precedents, Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Thomas Lindberg said that withdrawing from a plea is merited only in circumstances where "a strong manifest injustice" would take place.

"I do not find manifest injustice" in this case, he said. "This plea agreement was entered knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently."

According to the October plea, Lovell now faces a minimum prison term of 5.25 years on the child molestation charge. He faces a maximum probation term of seven years on the sexual conduct with a minor charge. If he violates probation, a judge then could sentence him to a maximum prison term of 14 years.

The former priest will serve probation upon his release from the prison. The range of sentences stems from the law that was in effect at the time when the sexual abuse occurred.

Lovell, who served as a priest in the Phoenix Diocese in the 1970s and 1980s, is one of the eight priests indicted since May 2003 on charges of sexually abusing children. He initially faced four felony charges in Yavapai County.

According to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, these charges stem from incidents that occurred between 1978 and 1979 while the defendant was serving as a Claretian Order priest at Sacred Heart Parish in Prescott. The victim, a 13-year-old altar boy, was attending the Sacred Heart grade school at the time.

After Lindberg accepted the plea agreement in October, new charges surfaced in Maricopa County.

Rachel Mitchell, a prosecutor with the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, said another victim came forward and a grand jury indicted Lovell on nine counts including eight counts of child molestation and one count of sexual conduct with a minor.

These charges stem from incidents that allegedly occurred between July 1, 1984 and May 31, 1985 when Lovell served as an associate pastor at St. Anthony Parish.

Lovell testified Friday that when he turned himself to Arizona authorities in July, someone previously had led him to believe that the state would dismiss all charges against him because of the statute of limitation.

"I had that indication," he said, because that is what happened in California in July 2003.

California authorities had to drop 11 counts of lewd acts on a child under the age of 15 against Lovell and release him from their jail because the Supreme Court overturned a 1994 California law that lifted the statute of limitations for sex crimes involving children.

The California charges stemmed from incidents that allegedly occurred between 1980 and 1982 in San Gabriel, Calif., and involved four alleged victims.

Lindberg scheduled Lovell's sentencing for 1 p.m. on March 2.

Contact the reporter at mburicadam@prescottaz.com