Influential Clergyman Is Placed on Leave
Sex Allegation Targets Fushek
By Joseph A. Reaves
December 30, 2004
A Valley priest who founded a charismatic youth group that exploded into the nation's largest teen ministry was placed on administrative leave Wednesday while his superiors investigate an allegation of sexual impropriety that went unreported for two decades.
The allegation was the second of a sexual nature brought in the past 10 years against Monsignor Dale Fushek, founder of the Life Teen movement and longtime pastor at St. Timothy's Parish in Mesa.
Neither incident involved physical sexual contact. One involved a sexual-harassment complaint raised by a male Life Teen employee that was settled out of court for $45,000 in 1995. The most recent allegation stems from an event that reportedly took place in 1985 when the accuser, then 14, said he was sodomized by another priest while Fushek watched and performed sexual acts on himself without intervening to protect the youth.
Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted was made aware of the latest allegation Tuesday, and after his deputies met with the accuser's attorney, the bishop announced he was placing Fushek on paid administrative leave. The decision means Fushek, one of the most popular priests in the diocese, is banned from all public ministry, including saying Mass, until the investigation is complete.
"This has been a very difficult but necessary decision," the bishop's top aide, Vicar General Fred Adamson, said at a hastily called news conference at the diocese's headquarters in downtown Phoenix.
"The action comes after an attorney notified the Diocese of Phoenix that his client claimed to have recovered a repressed memory involving sexual improprieties by Father Fushek in 1985," Adamson said.
Adamson stressed the decision to place Fushek on administrative leave "is not a presumption of guilt or innocence." It was made, he said, to comply with the Diocesan Policy on Sexual Misconduct, which was strengthened in the wake of the nationwide priest abuse scandal that shook the Catholic Church.
Under that policy, church officials are required to notify civil authorities about allegations of sexual misconduct involving children.
Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley confirmed Wednesday night that his office had been notified of the allegations against Fushek.
"Obviously, we appreciate the cooperation of the church, and this matter shall be looked into by my office," Romley said.
Frank Verderame, the attorney who raised the allegations, said he and the diocese agreed to keep his client's identity confidential.
"We are doing so in the interest of helping my client heal from this horrible tragedy," he said.
Verderame, a Catholic whose children were Life Teen members, said he wept when he finally made the decision to contact the diocese on Dec. 22.
"As a Roman Catholic and a person who has known Father Fushek for nearly 20 years, I am personally upset about having to bring this case," he said. "But justice requires me to do so."
Verderame, who is also a close friend of Adamson, said he told the diocese Fushek was in a bedroom at St. Timothy's rectory in 1985 when another priest sodomized his client. That priest was never assigned to St. Timothy's Parish.
Romley said his office knew of the 1985 case but was unable to prosecute.
"We were aware of this incident and followed up, but the man who brought the allegation was undergoing counseling and did not want to pursue it at that particular time," Romley said.
Verderame said he told the diocese in three meetings since Dec. 22 that Fushek witnessed the priest sodomizing his client and did nothing to stop it.
"We also have information that Father Fushek was made aware of inappropriate conduct by others in addition to (that priest) and apparently did not report it to the authorities," he said.
A pre-sentencing report obtained by The Arizona Republic in yet another sexual-misconduct case seems to support the allegation that Fushek failed to report at least two other incidents involving inappropriate behavior.
That pre-sentencing report was prepared in the case of Marc "M.J." Gehrna, a former Life Teen employee from Chandler, who pleaded guilty in May 2002 to three counts of sexual misconduct with a minor.
In the report, a young man and a young woman each told court officials they reported inappropriate sexual activities by Gehrna to Fushek.
Verderame said he was unable to find any evidence that Fushek reported those incidents to his superiors or to civil authorities.
"We have inquired with the County Attorney's Office and do not believe that he reported this behavior to the authorities," Verderame said. "This information suggests that a culture of inappropriate behavior existed at St. Tim's."
Fushek's attorney, Michael Manning, said he welcomed the decision to put Fushek on paid leave while the allegations are investigated. But he said he is certain Fushek is innocent.
"I know from speaking with him that there is absolutely no grounds for these allegations," Manning said.
"I think it is good that legitimate complaints are brought and resolved, but the atmosphere that exists today makes good priests, innocent priests, vulnerable to these sorts of trumped-up allegations."
Fushek, longtime pastor at St. Timothy's Parish, founded the Life Teen organization in 1985 to reach out to youngsters who felt the church was irrelevant. Under his charismatic leadership, Life Teen has grown to more than 100,000 members with Masses in 850 churches across the nation each week.
Parishioners and staff members at St. Timothy's were shocked by his suspension but said they, too, were confident he will be cleared of any wrongdoing.
"The essence of Father Dale is inconsistent with the essence of what might be the complaint," said Donna Killoughey Bird, development director and general counsel of Life Teen.
The Rev. Carlos Gomez, associate pastor at St. Timothy's, said Monsignor Richard Moyer, former vicar general of the diocese, will fill in while Fushek is on administrative leave.
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