Possible Deal: 90 Days in Jail if Judge Approves
Robert K. Larson, now 71, wiped his eyes with a handkerchief as he listened to terms of the plea agreement he signed. He shook his head from side to side as details of the crimes were read into the record by Harvey County Attorney Matt Treaster.
More than 70 people, all of whom were searched for weapons before being allowed into the courtroom, packed the seating area. Their faces were a mixture of pain, sadness and anger as they watched Larson and listened to the crimes he admitted: one count of indecent liberties with a child and three counts of sexual battery related to incidents that occurred between 1984 and 1986 at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Newton.
Two of the victims were molested at weddings at which Larson was the celebrant, according to court documents. The two others were victimized when they were servers for a Mass that Larson celebrated.
Victims and their loved ones filled the front row on one side of the seating area Tuesday. Some of them had gone public with what happened to them; some had not. Larson never looked at them.
Larson will be sentenced March 22. The plea agreement recommends he be sentenced to 90 days in jail and five years of probation, but Judge Theodore Ice is not bound by the agreement. He could sentence Larson to as much as 23 years in prison.
Officials for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita declined comment on Tuesday's plea.
The agreement carries an immunity clause, Treaster said, meaning Larson cannot be charged with any additional sex crimes stemming from any incidents that may have happened elsewhere in the state. Both Sumner and Sedgwick counties have ongoing investigations involving Larson, who served parishes in those counties as well.
Kim Parker, Sedgwick County deputy district attorney, was unaware of the agreement's immunity provisions. She said she would not comment until she had a chance to review the agreement.
Sumner County prosecutor William Mott said he wasn't aware of the immunity agreement either. But Mott said he was not sure it mattered because he didn't have enough admissible evidence to file charges anyway.
Treaster said Larson will have to be willing to testify or give depositions in future court proceedings related to his activities during 30 years in the diocese. That could prove significant if civil suits are filed, he said.
After the hearing, Treaster said he accepted a plea agreement for a variety of reasons - chief among them the fact that two of the four victims named in the complaint simply did not want to testify.
"A lot of thought went into this," he said. "This wasn't a shoot-from-the-hip deal."
Many area lawyers thought getting a conviction against Larson would be a long shot at best because the charges date back to the mid-1980s and there were questions about the statute of limitations. But Treaster said, "I don't feel any satisfaction here."
He said he knows of five former altar boys who had told people close to them that they had been molested by Larson - and later committed suicide.
"There's nothing we can do that can bring them back," Treaster said.
The sister of one of those men, RoxAnne Romey, fumed in the hallway after the hearing.
"I won't have closure until he's dead in the ground or rotting in a jail someplace," Romey said of Larson.
Daniel Romey committed suicide in 1978 at age 23, RoxAnne Romey said, years after telling his family he had been molested in the late 1960s while Larson was counseling him.
Larson did not comment after the hearing, but his lawyer, Dan Monnat, said the former priest apologized to victims and their families "with great sorrow." Larson also acknowledged through his lawyer that the victims will probably never be able to forgive him, but he hoped that years of extensive therapy and 15 years of what Monnat described as "model behavior" demonstrated his desire to change.
But that comment rankled victims' families because one of the incidents that Larson pleaded guilty to occurred in December 1986 and several fresh allegations in 1988 led to Larson's removal from the diocese.
Paul Schwartz, one of the victims who was prepared to testify against Larson, admitted to feeling overwhelmed Tuesday.
"There's a lot going on" inside, he said. "There's not one word or one emotion that can express what I'm feeling right now."
Horace Patterson did have one word, pride, for the four men who had found the courage to step forward and tell the world what Larson had done to them.
Patterson's oldest son, Eric, committed suicide in October 1999 at age 29, less than a year after telling his family that Larson had molested him when he was a 12-year-old altar boy at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Conway Springs.
"If Eric could have known these fine young men and what had happened to them, he would have been here today," Horace Patterson said.
While the Pattersons were not involved in the Harvey County criminal case, Tuesday was an important milestone on their road to healing.
Becky Leddy, Eric's older sister, said the hearing helped provide closure for her.
"I'm just so ready to get my life back," she said.
Eric's mother, Janet, was so shattered by his death and news that the diocese had not warned parishioners about complaints against Larson that she left the church that had been the centerpiece of her life. Tuesday morning, she was smiling more than at any time in recent memory.
Just before leaving the Harvey County Courthouse, she stopped, touched her daughter's arm and said, "I think I can start putting myself back together now."
Stan Finger can be reached at 268-6437 or email@example.com.
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