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  Sexual Abuse: Henderson Priest Pleads Guilty

By Glenn Puit
Las Vegas Review-Journal (Nevada)
January 3, 2003

After months of denials, a Henderson priest acknowledged in court Thursday that he abused five Southern Nevada boys at his parish, crimes that could yield prison time.

When questioned by District Judge Joseph Bonaventure, suspended Catholic priest Mark Roberts acknowledged he made the boys take off their clothes and spread their arms in a mock crucifixion. Roberts also admitted to the judge that one boy was ordered to fondle his penis, another was ordered to give Roberts a massage, and others were whipped with a cord.

'You struck (one boy) with a wire hangar or hands ... and did pull the hair and verbally abuse (him) by calling them names using vulgarities?' the judge asked Roberts.

'Yes, your honor,' replied Roberts, who at the time of the crimes was pastor at St. Peter the Apostle Church on Boulder Highway.

The admissions were in sharp contrast to the scene last spring outside Henderson Justice Court, when a smiling Roberts walked from court arm-in-arm with supporters who proclaimed his innocence.

That support was absent Thursday as Roberts pleaded guilty to one count of open and gross lewdness and four counts of child abuse and neglect. The plea agreement mandates that Roberts resign as a priest; that he register as a sex offender; and that he no longer have unsupervised contact with children.

'One of the greatest things we have accomplished today is that he's not a priest (anymore),' said Deborah Tullgren, who identified herself outside court as a mother of one of the victims.

Roberts faces a sentence ranging from probation to five years in prison when he is sentenced by District Judge Donald Mosley on March 10. Bonaventure was filling in for Mosley on Thursday.

Tullgren said she will ask Mosley to impose prison time.

'We firmly believe that he is already serving his jail sentence now,' she said. 'By telling the world he is guilty, his life is over.'

Roberts' plea confirmed what his accusers have already known -- that the 51-year-old is yet another American priest who used his authority to prey on youths.

Such conduct has led to 234 cases of Roman Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse since 1965 in the United States, USA Today reported earlier this year.

The cases have led to accusations that the Catholic Church has sheltered sex offenders who work in the priesthood.

In response, Boston's top Catholic leader has resigned and last month, the Vatican signed off on a new policy to deal with sexually abusive priests.

In Las Vegas Thursday, Bishop Joseph Pepe of the Diocese of Las Vegas issued a statement on the Roberts case through the public relations firm of Rogich Communications Group. A request for an interview was not granted.

'This is a sad day for all of us and we are praying for everyone involved,' Pepe said in the statement. 'My heart goes out to everyone who has been affected by this difficult situation.

'We have been through a great deal this past year and we continue to focus on the healing process for the sake of the victims, our Diocese and its members,' the statement read.

Word of Roberts' crimes surfaced in February when Henderson police confirmed a criminal investigation. The Diocese of Las Vegas said Roberts was suspended from his post in January 2002.

In March, a civil lawsuit was filed on behalf of six young men alleging abuse at the hands of Roberts. In April, Roberts was criminally charged.

Roberts originally faced two counts of using a minor in the production of pornography, two counts of open or gross lewdness and five counts of child abuse and neglect. The charges encompassed the allegations made by five boys who are all 17 to 20 years old now.

Clark County District Attorney Stewart Bell said he was pleased with the plea agreement prosecutors secured.

'It was important to us that he admitted he took advantage of their trust and that he validate the statements of the victims,' Bell said. 'There were parishioners and others questioning their veracity.'

Of Roberts' conduct, Bell said: 'It sounds weird and it is weird.'

'It was important he resign and not be in a position to do this again, that he not be able to interact alone with young people again,' Bell said.

Bell and Clark County prosecutor Doug Herndon said there were no acts of sexual penetration in the crimes, meaning Roberts could not be charged with sexual assault. That charge carries a potential life sentence.

Herndon said the only felonies Roberts faced were the child pornography counts. Those charges stem from photos the boys said were taken of them during the abuse.

The pornography charges were dropped during the plea negotiations in large part because the boys said Roberts gave them the photos, which they later destroyed.

Herndon said families of the victims were not opposed to Roberts' plea to the gross misdemeanor charges because they would not have to go through the emotional ordeal of testifying in the high profile criminal case.

Whether Roberts gets prison time or probation will be up to Mosley, who has a reputation as one of the harsher sentencing judges in Southern Nevada. Bell said a person who commits a sex offense in Nevada can only be eligible for probation if a psychological examination deems the offender to not be a future threat.

But Herndon said the state has agreed not to oppose probation as part of the plea agreement and it's possible Roberts could be placed on up to three years' probation.

The civil lawsuit, which is still pending, names as defendants Roberts; the diocese; Pepe; and his predecessor, Daniel Walsh.

The lawsuit alleges that the diocese and its leaders failed 'to act on various complaints, suggestions and advice given by members of the parish to act on their suspicions.'

In the statement issued by the diocese Thursday, Very Reverend Robert Stoeckig said 'the diocese immediately contacted authorities and promptly suspended Father Roberts.'

The statement went on to say that Roberts' plea 'prevents him from performing any duties as a priest in this Diocese or elsewhere in the church.'

The victims' civil attorney, Al Massi, said the guilty plea shows those who questioned the victims' truthfulness were flat wrong.

'This is the first good day for them in a long time,' Massi said. 'Now people know what they've been saying was true.'

Tullgren said she and her family are still followers of the Catholic faith but that they no longer attend St. Peter the Apostle.

'We separate the priest from the doctrine,' she said.

She went on to say that she hopes to someday forgive Roberts, but that day has not come yet.

'I just hope the judge will realize how many lives he has affected,' she said.

 
 

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