FULLERTON, Calif. (AP) _ A Roman Catholic priest pleaded guilty Friday to sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl and was immediately removed from the ministry.

The Rev. Gerardo Tanilong pleaded guilty to two felony counts of committing a lewd act upon a child as he and the girl sat in the back seat of a car on the way back from a church function last July.

Tanilong, 72, faces up to 44 months in prison when he is sentenced in April.

Bishop Tod Brown of the Diocese of Orange County removed him from the ministry after he pleaded guilty, and said Tanilong would not be permitted to wear the clerical collar or perform the functions of a priest.

``I deeply regret the abuse of a minor and pray for the recovery of the victim and family,'' Brown said in a statement.

Tanilong was parochial vicar at Our Lady of Guadalupe parishes in Santa Ana.

He began working at the diocese in 1990, four years after arriving from the Philippines, and has served at four other Orange County parishes. Church officials said this was the first abuse allegation against him.