Romley Opens Diocese Inquiry Valley's Top Monsignor Avoided Harassment Suit
By Nena Baker, Kelly Ettenborough and Joseph A. Reaves
May 31, 2002
The Diocese of Phoenix quietly paid $45,000 to settle a sexual-harassmentclaim in 1995 against one of its most prominent priests, who has since beenpromoted to second-in-command in the diocese to Bishop Thomas O'Brien.
Monsignor Dale Fushek, pastor of St. Timothy Catholic Community in Mesa andthe founder of Life Teen, the largest Catholic teen ministry program in thecountry, told parishioners of the claim during Good Friday services lastmonth.
Fushek and church officials insist that he did nothing wrong, and that thepayment, made to a former employee of St. Timothy's, was done simply to avoidthe greater costs of fighting a lawsuit.
"Several years ago, I found myself in a situation where my own words andactions, which I considered to be words and actions of affection, wereinterpreted by an adult staff member as having sexual connotations," Fusheksaid from the pulpit in a recording obtained by The Republic. "This mancomplained about that to the diocese."
Fushek told parishioners the matter was quickly resolved through thediocese.
"But this unfortunate experience in my life taught me many lessons,including the fact that I need to be more scrupulous in my dealings withothers," he added.
The man who claimed sexual harassment did not file a lawsuit. Mike Manning,a Phoenix attorney and Life Teen board member, said the claim was settled "forless than the cost of litigation."
Fushek said he could not disclose the amount of the settlement, but asource, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it was $45,000.
Fushek, 49, who has spent his entire career with the Phoenix Diocese, isconsidered one of the most charismatic clerics in the Valley and a prominentfigure in the diocese. He coordinated the Phoenix visits of Pope John Paul IIand Mother Teresa and, by his own admission, has always kept a high profile.
Diocese officials said in a statement Thursday that the claim againstFushek did not include any allegation of criminal conduct or sexual contact.
"With respect to questions as to why Monsignor Fushek would be elevated tothe title of monsignor and named as a vicar ... after such a settlement, anydecision honoring or elevating a priest is always based on the complete recordof his service to the church, the diocese and our parishes," the statementsaid.
As vicar general, Fushek is one of two priests in the Phoenix Diocese withauthority to stand in for O'Brien.
He was named a vicar general in April 2000. Last February, the pope madeFushek a monsignor, an honorary title given in recognition of his service andhis accomplishments during 24 years as a priest.
Fushek's elevation to vicar general and monsignor puts him on a careertrack to becoming a bishop.
Fushek, interviewed Thursday by The Republic in Manning's office, said herevealed the claim to parishioners because it was mentioned in a Chandlerpolice report regarding Mark Gherna, a former Life Teen volunteer at St.Timothy's.
Gherna was sentenced this week to a year in prison after pleading guilty tothree counts of sexual misconduct with a minor.
Fushek said he has been open with parishioners about the Ghernainvestigation and always tries to be honest with them.
But the sex-abuse scandal that has engulfed the church in recent monthsalso influenced his decision to disclose the claim on Good Friday, he said.
Meanwhile, the swirl of reports about priestly misconduct has onlyintensified.
Late last week, for example, Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weaklandacknowledged that his diocese paid $450,000 in 1998 to settle a claim that twodecades ago he sexually assaulted a 30-year-old graduate student.
"I knew people would be looking for evidence of these kinds of things,"Fushek said Thursday. "I thought it would be best if (parishioners) heard itfrom me than from someone else."
Fushek declined to detail the circumstances of the claim, but said he haddone nothing wrong.
The diocese investigated the claim and determined it had no merit, Fusheksaid. But when the complainant insisted he was going to file a lawsuit, Fusheksaid he encouraged the diocese to settle.
"Part of me just wanted to get it over with," he said.
Fushek said he knows of no other complaint about his conduct.
His work with Life Teen has earned him international prominence and theadmiration of Catholic leaders and laity who marvel at his ability to lead andinspire teenagers.
Life Teen masses at St. Timothy's are a mix of music, laughter and amessage that God is awesome, served up by a priest, often Fushek, with thesensibilities of a Letterman and the delivery of a Leno.
Traditional Catholics sometimes find his approach upsetting, but they can'tdiscount its success: The Life Teen model has made its way into 842 parishesin 11 countries in the 17 years since Fushek and two friends dreamed it up.
Nine Life Teen board members contacted by The Republic unanimously praisedFushek and said they will continue to give him their support.
"I am saddened by the timing of this story because right now, while thereare priests who are certainly guilty as far as wrongdoing against others,Father Dale is in no way part of this media frenzy that's occurred," said MaryJo West, a former Valley TV anchorwoman.
Johnny Basha Jr., senior vice president of Bashas' Inc., said he wassaddened that someone as wonderful as Fushek would get caught up in thecontroversy over priest misconduct.
"(The settlement) did not change my opinion of the wonderful person that heis," Basha said. "He's a great religious leader."
After the settlement, Fushek said he went through a psychologicalevaluation that helped him see himself more clearly.
"I learned that I have a much more dominant personality than I knew I had,"he said in the interview.
"If I'm not really careful, people get intimidated and offended. I learnedI have to be really careful in what I say and do because of my personality andmy position."
Relationships are difficult for anybody, said Fushek, but especiallypriests.
"You do want closeness and friendship and healthy intimacy," he said, "and yet you have a vow or a promise to have clear boundaries in that."
He said this experience has taught him that "you can be misunderstood andyou can make mistakes."
"Like any Catholic," he added, "when you make a mistake you have the rightto take it to God to ask for forgiveness and try to grow as a human being."
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