Valley Priest Removed from Church
Merced's Lastiri Allegedly Solicited Men on Internet
By Amy White
The Modesto Bee [Merced CA]
July 16, 2004
A longtime Merced priest was removed from duties at St. Patrick's parish Thursday amid allegations he was active on a homosexual dating Web site.
Bishop John T. Steinbock of the Diocese of Fresno said in a statement Thursday that he is sending the Rev. Jean-Michael Lastiri, 48, to a Maryland treatment facility after learning Wednesday of "a Web page and chat room of [Lastiri] that was totally inappropriate."
When Steinbock spoke with Lastiri on Thursday, the priest "denied any inappropriate sexual activity on his part and declared that he only entertained fantasies through this activity on the Internet," according to Steinbock's statement.
Lastiri told the Merced Sun-Star earlier in the day that the allegations against him were false.
"I'm just shocked by it and dumbfounded by it all," Lastiri said of the accusations. Some parishioners have criticized his teaching methods, of leading the church in a liberal direction, he said, and were upset by the transfer of a more traditional priest from St. Patrick's last fall.
Lastiri could not be reached after the diocese issued its statement.
The allegations arose after an Illinois-based group, The Roman Catholic Faithful, claimed it had evidence showing that Lastiri, a priest since 1985, met homosexual men in an Internet chat room and arranged for rendezvous in cities he visited while traveling -- sometimes on church business.
The nonprofit group, which investigates abuses in the church, on Wednesday published numerous damaging documents about Lastiri on its Web site.
In addition to an online profile of Lastiri and messages posted to a dating service for gay men, the group published letters from concerned parishioners, whose names were deleted, and a response from Steinbock.
In an October 2003 letter posted on the site, Steinbock chastised 19 parishioners for defaming Lastiri in a letter that called for an investigation to see whether the priest was keeping his vow of celibacy.
"He is a good and dedicated priest, faithful to the magisterium of the Church, living a chaste and faithful life of a good priest," Steinbock said. "The people of God at St. Patrick's have been blest by his presence and leadership."
Stephen Brady, president of the Roman Catholic Faithful, said a handful of St. Patrick's parishioners turned to his group because the bishop refused to investigate.
They had questions about their priest, he said, and feared that Lastiri's teachings were too liberal.
Brady said his group would not go after a priest who is homosexual but celibate. He also said the church should never turn a blind eye when it comes to sexually active priests. "This priest had to be exposed, period," Brady said.
Brady gave the parishioners tips to build a case against Lastiri months ago.
They finally found their linchpin about two weeks ago, when one of the parishioners came across an e-mail address and some notes on paper with St. Patrick's letterhead, said one parishioner, Dr. Robert J. Butler. The church members traced the e-mail address to an online biography on an adult-oriented Web site called BEAR411.com.
They tipped off Brady, who saw a message from TopCAbear on July 7. An accompanying message solicited dates during a three-day trip to Las Vegas.
Brady said he called the New York, New York Hotel and Casino and was told that Lastiri had checked in. Next he called St. Patrick's and learned that Lastiri had gone to Las Vegas for a few days.
That was enough evidence for the Roman Catholic Faithful. Brady said his group had to step in to save the priest's soul, even if it gives his congregation an unsettling wake-up call.
"It's not an act of charity to allow one's neighbor to run headlong into hell," said Brady, noting that the Web postings were removed after he contacted church leaders.
Two parishioners who took part in the investigation said a public scandal could have been avoided if the diocese had been willing to step in earlier.
Butler of Merced said he had been suspicious of Lastiri for several years and is glad that the 5,000-member congregation will finally know the truth about its popular leader.
"I'm happy that this has come to a point where it's in the light," he said. "Hopefully, this will be an opportunity, even for him. None of us have any ill will toward him. Hopefully, he can heal his life."
Parishioner Brian Kravec said the investigation should be viewed as a journey of healing, not a witch hunt.
To him, sending Lastiri to counseling doesn't go far enough.
"What was common knowledge is now public knowledge, and Father Mike and the bishop are going to have to be accountable," Kravec said.
Tom Walsh, a retired FBI agent and former private investigator, said he helped the parishioners check into rumors about Lastiri, though he is not a member of St. Patrick's parish.
He said he wants to ensure that there are no homosexual priests in the pulpit.
Fresno attorney Stanley Teixeira, who is advising Lastiri, said Thursday that Lastiri had no comments.
"I think it's unfortunate, and I think they have attempted to ruin the reputation of a good man," Teixeira said. "It's vicious -- to go to the extent that they did to uncover something like this, you have to wonder, what is driving these people?"
Teixeira described Lastiri as "upset ... that somebody would invade his private life."
Diocese officials became aware of the Roman Catholic Faithful Web site and its allegations on Wednesday, said Diocese of Fresno communications director William Lucido.
Lastiri denies he engaged in personal contact with men he met on the site, Lucido said.
On his way to therapy
Steinbock said he decided to remove Lastiri from St. Patrick's parish after "realizing that this was a compulsive and addictive behavior."
According to Steinbock's statement, "any information that came to me as Bishop before July 14 suggesting inappropriate activity by Father Lastiri was gossip, rumor and innuendo upon which I could not act in justice."
He is sending Lastiri to St. Luke's Institute in Maryland "for appropriate psychological and spiritual counseling and appropriate therapy to help him deal with this problem," Steinbock said. St. Luke's is an institution for clergy and religious men and women dealing with addictive behaviors.
Lastiri will lead Mass on Sunday at St. Patrick's, Lucido said. He will leave the parish on Wednesday, "for a period of rest and reflection" before entering St. Luke's Aug. 8, Steinbock said.
Lucido said the diocese's policy is that reports of inappropriate activity are investigated by the bishop. "If deemed necessary, he would take the priest out of ministry; that is, in fact, what happened in this case."
Lastiri has not been disciplined, Lucido said. He remains a priest but cannot perform the associated duties.
Lastiri will return to the diocese after an undetermined period at St. Luke's but not necessarily to St. Patrick's parish, Lucido said.
"It is determined by the amount of counseling and therapy that is required," Lucido said.
Lastiri has been at St. Patrick's Catholic Church since 1993 and is credited with spearheading construction of a new church building and ministering to a growing congregation. St.Patrick's is one of the largest churches in the diocese, Lucido said.
Steinbock said Lastiri "has served well and done a great amount of good amongst God's people at St. Patrick's as he struggled with this addictive behavior. ... Father Lastiri asks God's pardon for any wrong on his part. He also asks the pardon of God's people, whom he has always tried to serve and bring God's love through these many years. ... Please pray for Father Lastiri as he seeks to help overcome this addiction."
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