Life Teen Co-Founders Sued
Accused of Facilitating Sex Attacks in 1985
By Joseph A. Reaves
January 28, 2005
Two co-founders of Life Teen, the nation's largest Catholic youth ministry based in the Valley, were accused Thursday in a lawsuit of covering up and helping carry out sexual attacks on a 14-year-old boy two decades ago.
The lawsuit, filed in Maricopa County Superior Court, also claimed that the Life Teen program at St. Timothy's parish in Mesa had "a social culture which inappropriately focused upon sexual activity ... and fostered an environment that led to inappropriate sexual behavior."
Named as defendants in the suit were Life Teen co-founders, Monsignor Dale J. Fushek and Phil Baniewicz, along with former priest Mark Lehman, resigned Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, the Diocese of Phoenix, St. Timothy's Parish and Life Teen Inc., the program founded at St. Timothy's parish in 1985.
Jennifer Swanson, spokeswoman for Life Teen, said the suit was being sent to the organization's outside legal counsel for review. But she denied the allegations.
"Life Teen has transformed lives of countless teenagers, families and communities," she said. "Such an impact can be proven and we will not allow a lawsuit to impede teens developing a friendship with Christ."
Baniewicz denied the allegations through Swanson but refused further comment. A spokeswoman for the diocese said the church was withholding comment until it could study the suit.
The lawsuit repeated and expanded allegations brought to the diocese last month by William J. Cesolini, who said he was sodomized at St. Tim's parish in 1985 by Lehman while Fushek watched and performed sexual acts on himself without stopping to help or report the attack to authorities.
In addition, Cesolini also claimed in his lawsuit that in 1985 he was sexually abused "on more than one occasion" by Baniewicz, a longtime close friend of Fushek and current president of Life Teen.
"We continue to believe that the initial claims made against Monsignor Dale are false and are even more outrageous now that they include Phil Baniewicz," Swanson said.
Michael Manning, Fushek's personal attorney and legal adviser to Life Teen, called the allegations "reckless and untruthful."
"This is outrageous," Manning said. "(Cesolini) has already tried to stain Monsignor Dale and others. This needs to get to a jury quickly so we can be vindicated."
Cesolini, a one-time seminarian, said he regained his memory of the decades-old molestations in February 2003 after another priest made an unwanted sexual advance on him. He went to a church-paid counselor, who helped him gradually recover the details of the trauma.
"It was an awful experience when it happened and it is very painful to have to relive it again," Cesolini told The Republic Thursday night. Cesolini originally sought to keep his name from the public to avoid criticism from skeptics of repressed memory and staunch supporters of the church and Life Teen. He gave his name to Bishop Olmsted and other senior church leaders when he first brought his allegations to the diocese Dec. 22.
One week later, Olmsted suspended Fushek from active ministry, in accordance with church guidelines for handling sexual abuse allegations. The bishop stressed then, and has repeated since, that the allegations are unproven and Fushek is entitled to a presumption of innocence.
The diocese agreed to keep Cesolini's name confidential while it investigated his claims and might have done so permanently if an out-of-court settlement could have been reached before a suit was filed.
Cesolini's attorney, Frank Verderame, said he went ahead with what he called a "painful" decision to file the lawsuit in part because the two-year statute of limitations that began when Cesolini recovered his memory in 2003 was about to expire and in part because of a barrage of new information.
"Since my investigation began, a number of witnesses have come forward with corroborating information," he said.
"What they've told me makes it abundantly clear that the church has not yet cleaned house. They still have a problem."The suit seeks damages to be determined by a judge and jury.
Manning said the suit definitely would go to trial.
He called Fushek's work with Life Teen "nothing short of inspirational" and stressed that there are "no allegations Monsignor Dale touched (Cesolini)."
Neither in the private allegations nor in his lawsuit does Cesolini claim Fushek had any sexual contact with him. But he does accuse the charismatic priest of facilitating an attack by Lehman, a seminarian at the time, who later spent 10 years in prison and was banned from public ministry for a series of other unrelated sex offenses.
"Defendant Fushek knew of the sexual abuse of plaintiff and did nothing to stop or prevent it; nor did defendant Fushek report the sexual abuse to authorities. Instead, he participated in the abuse by providing the plaintiff, a minor at the time, with alcohol."
Manning repeated claims he made earlier that Cesolini never mentioned Fushek being in the room when he first recovered his memory of the attack in February 2003.
"He shared his story a couple years ago with the prosecutors and Monsignor Dale was nowhere in there," Manning said. "Suddenly in the last month or so there is a second person in the room."
Verderame, acknowledged the details about Fushek came out after the initial memory recovery, but insisted they emerged long before last month.
"He was still in counseling and they needed some counseling to bring these things out," said Verderame, a devout Catholic, whose own children have been Life Teen members.
Cesolini, 33, is a Valley native and a graduate of Dobson High School. He was recruited for the priesthood and spent four semesters at Mount Angel Seminary in St. Benedict, Ore., before dropping out. He later lived with the Carmelite fathers at Mount St. Joseph's Monastery in Rohnerville, Calif., for a while and is currently a college student in the Valley.
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