Vatican Laicizes Local Priest Convicted of Sexual Abuse

By Robert DeFrancesco
Catholic Sun

A local priest who served a 10-year prison sentence on sexual abuse charges received word this spring that he has been permanently removed from the priesthood. Mark Lehman, who was released from prison in February 2002 and is serving lifetime probation, was officially dismissed from the clerical state on April 12.

As a result of the process, Lehman cannot identify himself as a priest, wear clerical garb and the Phoenix Diocese is no longer obligated to support him financially. In a statement from the diocese, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted reminded Lehman that he is still called to a life of holiness and conversion, and pledged to keep him in his prayers. The process to permanently remove Lehman from the priesthood, commonly known as laicization, was initiated in 2003 by Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe, who was the apostolic administrator of Phoenix at the time. Bishop Olmsted continued the process when he came to Phoenix in December 2003.

The Church is "very thorough" in its review of these cases, which can take some time, said canon law expert Fr. Timothy Davern, JCL. "Because of the gravity of the case, the file of Fr. Lehman was thoroughly reviewed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith" at the Vatican, said Fr. Davern, "and then the recommendation for laicization was made to the Holy Father, who made the final decision."

In a 1992 plea bargain, Lehman pleaded guilty to one count of sexual abuse of a minor and two counts of attempted sexual abuse of a minor. He was removed from priestly ministry in 1990 in accordance with the diocesan sexual misconduct policy.

The bishop called upon Catholics to pray that victims of sexual abuse find healing in their lives and in the Church. He also encouraged victims to come forward to report any abuse to the diocesan Office of Child and Youth Protection and local law enforcement officials.

Lehman was ordained June 4, 1988. His only assignment was at St. Thomas the Apostle Church beginning that July until he was placed on administrative leave June 29, 1990.

On Jan. 16, 1991, Lehman was charged with sexual abuse of a minor. Later that year 18 more criminal charges were filed by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office. Lehman was sentenced to 10 years in prison without parole in 1992 and was released in February 2002.

Diocese responds to laicization

Pope Benedict XVI has decreed that Mark Lehman is dismissed ex officio et pro bono Ecclesiae from the clerical state, and released from all obligations of the Sacred Priesthood. Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted received this decree and has been in conversation with Mr. Lehman about it. The decree became effective on April 12, 2006.

In 1992 Mark Lehman pleaded guilty in a plea bargain to one count of sexual misconduct with a minor and two counts of attempted sexual abuse of a minor. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and lifetime probation. After serving these 10 years, he was released from prison in 2002.

In response to the Charter and Norms for the Protection of Children and Youth, Achbishop Michael Sheehan, the Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Phoenix at the time, and then Bishop Olmsted when he assumed the leadership of the Diocese of Phoenix, sent a petition to the appropriate office at the Vatican for Fr. Lehman's removal from the clerical state. In his recent conversation with Mr. Lehman about the decree, the bishop assured him that he remains a member of the Catholic Church, is still called to a life of holiness which requires ongoing conversation for all, and will continue to be included in prayer. Bishop Olmsted invites everyone to pray as a Diocese for Lehman's victims and all victims of abuse by Church personnel — to pray especially for healing in their lives and in our Church. In order to bring about healing, the Office of Child and Youth Protection encourages those people who have been victimized within the Church to report this to the director of the office, Jean Sokol, or to law enforcement officials.


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