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  Priest Charged in Alleged '70s Assault
He Allegedly Had Sexual Encounters with a Northeast Catholic Student for More Than Two Years

By David O'Reilly
Philadelphia Inquirer
April 1, 2004

Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham announced yesterday that she was charging a Maryland priest with sexually abusing a Philadelphia boy more than two decades ago.

The criminal indictment is the first to result from a Philadelphia grand jury investigation into clergy sex abuse, she said.

It also marked the first criminal sex-abuse case in seven years against a priest in the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

At a morning news conference, Abraham said her office had issued a warrant for the arrest of the Rev. James J. Behan, 60. The charges against him include rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, and indecent assault.

Behan admitted to church officials that he had sex with the boy, according to the grand jury presentment.

Behan's accuser, Martin Donohue, 40, of Burlington County, said the priest initiated a sexual relationship with him in 1978, when he was a 15-year-old freshman at Northeast Catholic High School for Boys in Philadelphia.

Behan, a member of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales order of priests, was a religion teacher at Northeast Catholic at the time.

According to the presentment, Behan had befriended the boy's parents a year earlier, when he celebrated a Mass for their 25th wedding anniversary. In the summer of 1978, the presentment charges, Behan drove Donohue from a meeting at the school to the Oblates' rectory in the 3600 block of North Front Street.

There, the presentment states, Behan performed a sex act on the boy. That began a 2 1/2-year relationship that involved about 12 sexual encounters, even after Behan moved to North Carolina.

Pennsylvania law ordinarily requires an abuse victim to notify authorities by age 30 for criminal charges to be brought. The law has frustrated many sex-abuse victims in Pennsylvania.

Abraham said her office was able to make an exception because Behan's religious order had transferred him to Raleigh, N.C., in 1980.

When a person is "continually absent" from a jurisdiction where an alleged crime has been committed, the statute of limitations is suspended, Abraham said.

Behan's attorney, Mike McGovern, said Behan would surrender to Abraham's office by tomorrow.

McGovern, a former Philadelphia assistant district attorney, said he would fight the charges and called Abraham's effort to set aside the statute of limitations "faulty and disingenuous."

Donohue was not available yesterday for comment. In 2002, he told The Inquirer that he visited Behan in Raleigh and had sexual relations with him there until 1981, when he told Behan the relationship was "wrong."

Donohue said he came forward with the charges in April 2002, after he learned Behan was conducting youth retreats in the Diocese of Raleigh.

When confronted, Behan admitted to Raleigh diocesan officials that he had abused Donohue, according to the presentment.

The Oblates removed Behan the day after Donohue contacted the Raleigh diocese, according to Abraham. Since then, she said, Behan has worked and lived at the Oblates' retirement home in Childs, Md.

Beth Trapani, a spokeswoman for the 209-member Oblates, called the charges "extremely troubling" and said the order was cooperating with authorities.

Catholic religious orders transfer members frequently, Trapani said, adding that Behan's 1980 reassignment to Raleigh was "in no way connected to allegations."

She said the order, whose priests staff schools, parishes and foreign missions, was unaware of any allegations against Behan until Donohue came forward two years ago.

Since December, eight men have filed civil suits against the archdiocese, alleging they were sexually abused decades. Although the statute of limitations in those cases appears to have expired long ago, their lawyers are seeking exemptions, saying the archdiocese circumvented the statute by concealing information.

Abraham would not say when the grand jury might conclude its investigation or whether more arrests were imminent. She also declined to say whether Behan had other alleged victims.

The last time a priest working in the archdiocese faced criminal sex-abuse charges was in 1997. The Rev. Michael Swierzy of Lower Makefield Township pleaded guilty to corrupting the morals of a minor and was put on probation. He later was removed from ministry.

John Salveson, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests hailed Behan's imminent arrest but said it did not go far enough.

"I hope the grand jury focuses on the people in the church who supervised people like this," Salveson said.

Catherine Rossi, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, said that although Behan was not a Philadelphia diocesan priest, "we know the accusations are a cause for concern among the staff, students and others at Northeast Catholic High," which has been staffed by the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales since 1928.

 
 

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