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  Diocese Aid to Priest Angers Phoenix Victim

By Nena Baker
Arizona Republic (Phoenix)
April 25, 2002

Maria Godel trembled as she clicked through Arizona's sex-offender Web siteto a photo of Mark Lehman, the Phoenix priest who molested her.

The 23-year-old knew she would feel shaken when Lehman, 40, was releasedfrom prison in February. The priest served 10 years for abusing Godel andother students at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic School in the late 1980s.

But nothing prepared Godel for the shock of learning that the PhoenixDiocese is still financially supporting Lehman.

"I cannot explain how angry it makes me," said Godel, blinking back tears."The church treated us like we were the problem and has continued to support aman who devastated our lives."

As the Roman Catholic Church struggles with the controversy over sexuallyabusive priests, the question of how to treat clerics with a history of childmolestation looms large.

U.S. cardinals meeting with Pope John Paul II this week called for revisingchurch rules to expedite the removal of priests who abuse children.

But they announced no clear procedures on what to do with priests such asLehman, who have been in prison, are undergoing treatment and claim to haverepented.

On one hand, church officials say they must support and forgive those intheir service, no matter how much they may revile their actions. On the other,officials must also restore trust with a laity unhappy that a secret code ofthe collar put children at risk.

"Certainly, I disapprove of the way that church leadership allowed this tohappen," said Ann Davis, a parishioner at St. Patrick's in Scottsdale. "But wecan love the sinner but hate the sin."

A unique tie

Experts in church law said the relationship between a diocese and a priestcannot be compared to that of an employer and an employee in the secularworld, where a sex offender would be barred from such professions as, say,teaching or law.

"There is a lifelong relationship between a priest and the church, and anobligation for the church to support a priest, even if he goes off the deepend," said Monsignor Thomas Green of Catholic University of America inWashington, D.C.

Lehman received an advance of $1,000 from the Phoenix Diocese when he wasreleased from prison and $400 more to set up an apartment, said Rev. MikeDiskin, assistant chancellor of the diocese.

The diocese also is paying for state-required treatment programs and healthinsurance for Lehman, who remains a priest though he is suspended fromministerial duties.

Diskin said Phoenix Bishop Thomas O'Brien has referred Lehman's case to theVatican, which could choose to dismiss the priest or send his case back toPhoenix for diocese officials to determine his fate.

"A policy of 'one strike you're out' doesn't necessarily mean (dismissal),"Diskin said. "It could mean no ability to be in active ministry."

While people like Godel are incensed, some Phoenix parishioners said theywould be disappointed if the diocese cast Lehman aside.

"To me it would be hypocritical if the church turned its back," said TomTakash, a parishioner at St. Paul's parish.

But a priest who runs one of the country's most prominent psychologicaltreatment centers said practical considerations could lead the church todismiss abusive clerics.

"The damage to the church's credibility is so large, and the legal andfinancial fallout is so great, that many of our leaders feel forced to expelthem all," wrote the Rev. Stephen. J. Rossetti, president of the St. LukeInstitute in Silver Spring, Md., in the most recent issue of America, a Jesuitpublication.

Lehman is among a handful of priests who have been convicted of a sex crimein the United States; scores of other priests have been accused. Publishedreports estimate the church has paid more than $1 billion in damages andsettlements.

In Tucson, where the diocese recently settled civil cases involving priestswho reportedly molested altar boys, the two living priests named in thelawsuits continue to receive financial support from the diocese. Like Lehman,their priestly responsibilities have been suspended.

Victims fault diocese

But victims and their supporters said it's a matter of justice rather thanforgiveness. They say the Phoenix Diocese has a poor record of offeringsupport to those who have been harmed by priests.

"The thing they need to figure out is he's not the worker of God," saidDaniel Rhodes, 20, Godel's brother. .

Elizabeth Evarts Hasel, whose daughter, Laura, was molested by Lehman atthe age of 9, said the diocese never apologized or offered pastoral support.Meanwhile, Laura, now 22, spent her teenage years cycling in and out ofpsychiatric hospitals.

"None of these children received solace or comfort from the church," saidEvarts Hasel, a psychologist. "The diocese was afraid that would admit itsliability."

As it stands, the state, not the church, is supervising Lehman.

He lives in a downtown Mesa residential hotel where rooms are rented by theweek. His outings are limited to work in a warehouse, community service,sex-offender treatment, parole appointments and grocery shopping after 9 p.m.

He is prohibited from entering a church or anyplace else where he mightfind a child.

Lehman speaks

In a brief interview at his doorstep, Lehman said he intends to comply withthe terms of his parole and just wants to be left alone.

"I've served 10 years. I'm on house arrest," he said. "The alleged victimshave nothing to fear from me."

Lehman took a plea agreement during an emotional 1991 trial that sent aparade of children to the witness stand.

Prosecutors were seeking a life sentence for Lehman, nicknamed "Chester theMolester" by students at St. Thomas. But the County Attorney's Office grewworried the jury would be charmed by the priest.

A handsome man who wore his hair over his shoulders and who someparishioners likened in appearance to Jesus Christ, Lehman drew legions ofsupporters to the courtroom.

During the trial, the atmosphere was hostile, said Laura Reckart, a formerMaricopa County deputy attorney who prosecuted the case. The priest'ssupporters taunted the victims' families and swore at her, she said.

"The victims were being treated as if they were the bad people," saidReckart, who now works for the state attorney general.

Church officials cooperated with prosecutors, "but weren't particularlyhelpful."

She said the evidence was overwhelming that Lehman had fondled at leastfive little girls and sodomized Rhodes.

In a risk-assessment study, Lehman revealed that he had been attracted tochildren in the past, and a pre-sentencing report concluded that his behaviorat St. Thomas was part of an ongoing problem.

The American Psychiatric Association states that pedophilia, a preferencefor sexual activity with children who have not reached puberty, is usuallychronic and lifelong. Treatment programs emphasize relapse prevention.

Department of Corrections records show that Lehman did not receivesex-offender treatment while incarcerated, though he did complete a programdesigned as an orientation to treatment.

Tough to report abuse

"I don't want another family to have to go through what we went through," saidMaria Godel, the first child to report the abuse. "But at the same time, Ipray that he'll screw up so he'll have to go back to prison."

Lehman used threats to keep his victims quiet, promising that bad thingswould happen to them and their families if they reported him.

For a time, it worked. The three children who Lehman molested in Godel'sfamily were unaware their siblings also were victims. All were too scared totell a soul.

But coming forward has proved painful, too.

"I remember a counselor telling us that drug use, teen pregnancy, divorceand suicide tend to happen more in families where children were molested,"Godel said. "We've had everything except a suicide."

None of the victims interviewed remains active in the Catholic Church.

"I deeply miss the core of Catholicism," Evarts Hasel said. "But as for theadministration of the church, I don't believe they've invited God there for avery long time."

 
 

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