Priest Admits Sex Abuse
His Is the First Conviction in Phila.'s Investigation
By Nancy Phillips
February 9, 2005
In the first conviction to emerge from the city's long-running grand jury investigation of sex abuse by clergy, a priest pleaded guilty yesterday to sexually assaulting a teenager he had met when he taught at Northeast Catholic High School for Boys in the late 1970s.
The Rev. James J. Behan, 60, of Childs, Md., admitted that he had repeatedly molested the boy and had oral sex with him at a home he shared with other priests, in a Germantown rectory, on trips to North Carolina, and on a weekend ski trip to Quebec.
Behan's victim, Martin Donohoe, now 42, said yesterday that he, too, felt "a sense of guilt" - because many other victims of abuse by priests had not had their day in court.
Donohoe was 15 when Behan, then 34, began molesting him. Behan taught religious studies at Northeast Catholic, where Donohoe was a student. The attacks occurred between 1978 and 1980.
In most cases, the statute of limitations would have prevented prosecutors from bringing charges for crimes committed so long ago. But Behan left Pennsylvania in 1980, when he was reassigned to the Diocese of Raleigh, N.C. Last year, Philadelphia prosecutors persuaded a judge that, by leaving the jurisdiction, the priest had stopped the clock on the statute of limitations.
In March, Behan was charged with rape and other crimes. Yesterday, he pleaded guilty to involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and corrupting the morals of a minor.
Assistant District Attorney Maureen McCartney said the priest had exploited a "trust relationship" with the victim, a devout Catholic who was taught to revere priests.
Behan, a member of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, has been barred from public ministry and is living in a retirement home in Maryland. The priest, who could not be reached for comment yesterday, is to be sentenced May 25.
The victim, Donohoe, of Medford, said in an interview that he welcomed the priest's admission of guilt.
"I do feel some sort of peace because of what happened today," Donohoe said. At the same time, he said, he felt sympathy for other victims whose abusers could not be criminally charged because the statute of limitations had expired.
"I feel a sense of guilt about it," he said. "I wish there were others who could have had [criminal] cases with their abuses. . . . This is the only one so far, and I know how hard it's been for me."
Since District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham announced the grand jury probe in April 2002, authorities have interviewed hundreds of witnesses and heard disturbing tales of child rape and other abuses. But after nearly three years of investigation, prosecutors have charged only one priest: Behan.
Many of the crimes under investigation by the grand jury are decades old, according to people familiar with the panel's work, and the statute of limitations has expired.
Pennsylvania law generally requires prosecutors to bring criminal charges before the victim reaches age 30. In Behan's case, prosecutors were able to skirt that requirement because he had left the state.
Prosecutors in Massachusetts used a similar legal strategy to win a conviction against Paul R. Shanley, the defrocked priest who was convicted Monday of repeatedly raping a boy in the 1980s.
Donohoe reported the abuse by Behan in April 2002, shortly after Abraham announced the grand jury probe and appealed to victims to contact her office with information about sex crimes by clergy, no matter how long ago the abuses occurred.
The Philadelphia Archdiocese has said 44 priests had been "credibly" accused of abusing minors since 1950. Church officials have declined to elaborate, citing the rules of grand jury secrecy.
Donna M. Farrell, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, noted yesterday that Behan was a member of a religious order and not an archdiocesan priest. Nevertheless, she called the abuse "tragic" and said the church had many programs in place to assist victims of abuse. She urged anyone who wished to report a complaint of sexual abuse of a minor to call the church's victims-assistance coordinators at 215-587-3880.
The District Attorney's Office has asked anyone with such reports to call Detective Joseph Walsh at 215-686-8757.
Contact staff writer Nancy Phillips at 215-854-2254 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Inquirer staff writer Nathan Gorenstein contributed to this article.
CORRECTION-DATE: FEBRUARY 11, 2005
CLEARING THE RECORD, PUBLISHED FEBRUARY 11, 2005, FOLLOWS: An article in Wednesday's Inquirer erred in reporting that a priest who pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a 15-year-old boy in the late 1970s had admitted abusing him on a + ski trip to Quebec. While the Rev. James J. Behan admitted other acts of abuse, Behan's lawyer, Vincent J. Morrison, said the priest denies any abuse on the ski trip.
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