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  Priest Pleads Guilty to Abuse
Shocking Admission Could Aid Victims' Suit against Jesuits over Molestation

By Rodney Foo and Brandon Bailey
San Jose Mercury News
May 24, 2002

After years of sexually molesting a retarded dishwasher in his care, an 81-year-old retired priest took only minutes Thursday to confess before a Santa Clara County judge, with a guilty plea that both astonished observers and bolstered a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the Jesuit order.

"I'm guilty of this offense," the Rev. Edward Thomas Burke told a judge in his first court appearance — two weeks after he surrendered to sheriff's deputies.

The swift conclusion of the case puts Burke's fate in the hands of Superior Court Judge Kevin J. Murphy, who accepted the guilty plea and set a June 28 sentencing hearing. Burke faces a range of sentences, from three years in a state prison to five years of probation for felony lewd conduct.

The judge carefully asked Burke — a longtime librarian at the Sacred Heart Jesuit Center in Los Gatos — if he understood the ramifications of a guilty plea, that he was surrendering his right to a trial and could face years in prison. Each time, Burke replied that he did.

Shrouded by his two attorneys, Burke refused to comment as he left the courthouse in San Jose, still free on $50,000 bond.

For at least two years, Burke molested a 51-year-old kitchen worker at Sacred Heart, where both men lived. The priest befriended the man through their mutual love of trains, and even won the trust of the man's family.

Burke's guilty plea probably boosts a $10 million civil lawsuit filed on behalf of his victim and another retarded kitchen worker, alleging that Jesuit officials failed to protect the two men and were slow to notify police, echoing concerns raised about how similar cases have been handled by church authorities around the country.

Surprising plea

"It just amazes me that they would plead guilty," said attorney Robert Mezzetti II, who is representing Burke's victim, referred to as James Doe, in the civil lawsuit. "I have never, ever heard, in a criminal case of this magnitude, of anybody pleading guilty to a felony at an arraignment."

The suit, which claims the two men were abused for decades at Sacred Heart, names Burke, Brother Charles Leonard Connor, two other clergy members and the California Province for the Society of Jesus, which runs the Los Gatos center for retired priests.

Connor served six months' house arrest after pleading guilty last year to committing a lewd act on the other retarded man, who is referred to as John Doe in legal filings.

Jesuit officials have publicly apologized for not notifying police about the allegations against Burke two years ago, when he told a superior that he had sexual contact with one of the victims.

The Rev. Thomas H. Smolich, the Jesuit order's top official in the West, said he wasn't involved in Burke's decision to plead guilty but supported it.

"I think it's safe to say there was no reason to have a trial if he acknowledges that something like this has happened," Smolich said. "I believe that Father Burke and his attorney have made the decision, which is not only in Father Burke's best interest but in the best interests of everyone involved."

Relief

News of the guilty plea was greeted with relief by Holly Ilse, who befriended the two kitchen workers at her Los Gatos dress shop and prodded authorities into investigating their complaints about the abuse.

"I was shocked that he pled guilty so quickly, but I'm relieved that he will finally be held accountable for his actions," Ilse said. "If you are going to sexually assault a vulnerable adult, you should be held accountable."

In April 2000, investigators interviewed Connor's victim, but Burke's victim was at first afraid to cooperate. Santa Clara County sheriff's investigator Dianne Camarda continued to look into the case, which was bolstered by new evidence from the civil lawsuit.

Prosecutors' first hint of Burke's intentions to plead guilty were Thursday morning when his attorneys called Deputy District Attorney Ben Field. Among their questions: Which judge might sentence Burke?

Within hours, the two sides were meeting with Murphy. But Field said prosecutors didn't make any deals.

"I wouldn't describe what we've done as negotiations," Field said. "What we have done is set the case for a contested sentencing hearing.

"I wasn't prepared to make any offers today. The only way he could have pleaded was guilty without conditions."

One veteran defense expert said such a sudden guilty plea would be highly unusual unless the defendant had some understanding of what his sentence would be. It's not unusual for the prosecution and defense to meet with a judge in private to get an idea what sentence the judge is likely to impose, said Peter Keane, dean of Golden Gate University School of Law and a former top attorney in the San Francisco public defender's office.

"To just go ahead and throw your client into a blind situation, without any kind of signals or under-the-table assurances, would not be a good idea and certainly wouldn't be in the best interests of the client," he said.

Burke and the Jesuits' legal troubles are far from over. They must deal with a potentially costly settlement in civil court.

"We will deal with what that means in the civil situation as it comes up," said Smolich, the West's Jesuit leader.

What Burke's decision means, Keane said, is troubling to the Jesuits' case.

"A guilty plea buries the defendant on the civil side," Keane said. "It's a judicial confession that he did the act."

 
 

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