Larson Plea Deal Infuriates Many
Letters to Judge Theodore Ice Express Outrage That Former Priest Robert Larson May Be Sentenced Leniently After Pleading Guilty to the Sexua Abuse of Altar Boys

By Stan Finger
Wichita Eagle
March 29, 2001

There are 50 of them fattening the red case folder in the Harvey County clerk's office.

Some of the letters are carefully hand-written on lined paper. Some are terse notes scrawled at an angle on small squares of paper. Still others come on colorful stationery or from a computer printer.

Nine letters ask Judge Theodore Ice to be merciful when he sentences Robert K. Larson at 1:30 p.m. today in Harvey County District Court. Larson, a former Catholic priest, pleaded guilty last month to one count of indecent liberties with a child, a felony, and three misdemeanor counts of sexual battery related to incidents that occurred between 1984 and 1986 at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Newton.

Under terms of the agreement that led to Larson's plea, Harvey County Attorney Matt Treaster is recommending a sentence of 90 days in jail and five years of probation.

That's what the rest of the letters are about.

Those writers want Ice to give a much longer sentence to Larson, who is now 71 and living in Ohio. Ice is not bound by the plea agreement, and he could sentence Larson to as much as 23 years in prison.

"It would be a mockery of the justice system to allow the plea bargain agreement to stand," wrote Cheryl Benoit of Wichita. "This man should get nothing less than life in prison. This is the most disgusting thing I think I have ever heard of happening. The more I think of it, the sicker I become."

Then, as an afterthought, Benoit added, "I just had to write or I think I would bust."

The outpouring of public reaction to the Larson case has been unprecedented in Newton, said Cheryl Ainsworth, the victim/witness coordinator for Harvey County.

"I don't recall there ever being this much letter writing to a judge about sentencing," said Ainsworth, a Harvey County native.

The emotion of the case prompted authorities to conduct weapons searches on everyone who crowded into the courtroom last month for the hearing at which Larson pleaded guilty. Similar security precautions will be in place today, Ainsworth said.

Victims and family members are expected to testify about the effect the crimes had on their lives. That is one of the factors that Ice can take into account when setting Larson's sentence. Other factors include whether or not the convicted person demonstrates remorse and if the perpetrator had a fiduciary role, or position of trust, with the victims.

Treaster has been harshly criticized for accepting the plea bargain, but he said he stands by the decision. Two of the four victims wanted to avoid the mental anguish of testifying if at all possible, he said. There was also the possibility, Treaster said, that Ice could have thrown out the case entirely, ruling that the incidents on which the charges were based fell outside the statute of limitations.

"We got the felony," Treaster said. "That was very important to the victims."

Treaster said the plea agreement is simply a recommendation, but he acknowledged "very rarely do judges go outside plea agreements."

Letter after letter in the file urges Ice to do just that. While only those letters written by victims or their families—and few in the case file fit that description—can factor into the deliberations, several writers told the judge the suffering that results from sexual abuse is almost impossible to understate.

A 36-year-old woman named Karen who said she was repeatedly molested as a young girl wrote that "it is something that has a bearing on my life each and every day."

"No matter how much you try to 'get past it' or 'get over it' or even 'just to not think about it', I have yet to find a way to do it," she wrote. "Years may pass, but to a victim of this type of thing it might as well be minutes because it's something that the hurt and shame you feel never goes away."

William Peltzer, who described himself as a friend of Larson's since 1958 in a letter to the editor published by The Eagle last month, urged Ice to be lenient because Larson "felt he had no choice" but to plead guilty.

"He stands alone without funds to properly defend himself," Peltzer wrote. "In a jury trial, I'm convinced he would be at a great disadvantage after the attendant publicity. . . . "

He then offered a statement in his letter he said came from Larson: "My life is over, my reputation ruined from the first time the accusations appeared in print. We believe what we want to believe and a complete exoneration would never remove the stain."

Letters or cards of support came from several Roman Catholic nuns in the diocese Larson served for 30 years before being removed from the pulpit in 1988 by Bishop Eugene Gerber and sent out of state for evaluation and treatment.

"This is not a crime of robbery, murder or swindling poor people out of their life's savings," Sister Bernice Taylor wrote. "It is a crime of weakness."

Others urged Ice to be Christ-like in his handling of Larson's sentence.

"He has been humbled, repentant and beseeches God's mercy and healing graces on all those victimized by his actions," wrote Sister Madeline Kisner.

Healing, if it ever comes, will come slowly, others wrote.

Grace Fisher of Conway Springs wrote that Larson's actions have torn her community and her church apart. Larson was pastor of St. Joseph's Catholic Church there for one year beginning in the fall of 1982. Two families blame their sons' suicides on the fact that Larson abused them while he was a priest in Conway Springs.

"Please let him feel a fraction, just a small fraction, of the suffering that those young men and their families have endured," Fisher wrote. "Please make him stand accountable for his actions and help the families he hurt begin to heal."

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