Victim: 'You Can't Put It Behind You
Abuse by Priest Torments Man Throughout Life

By Joseph A. Reaves
Arizona Republic
June 3, 2003

John Starkey says he was always taught to believe that priests were God's gift to this world. He doesn't believe that any more.

Starkey, 31, was molested by his favorite priest at St. Jerome's parish in Phoenix in 1986. He is just one of dozens of victims of clergy abuse across the Valley.

[Photo caption: John Starkey, at 13 in 1985, with Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien (left) and Father Joseph Lessard, who molested Starkey.]

Like many, he said he was both pleased and disappointed to hear that Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien had admitted he concealed allegations of sexual abuse by priests.

"I thinking removing some of O'Brien's power is a great step, but the cover-ups and the abuse are still going to continue unless the people in the Catholic Church open their eyes," Starkey said. "The answer isn't going to come from the church leaders. It has to come from the people."

Many people in Arizona, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, may see O'Brien's confession as the long-awaited end to a painful scandal. But for the victims of clergy abuse, the suffering never ends.

"It affects everything you do the rest of you life," said Starkey, a quiet 6-foot-4 bear of a man with long thin sideburns and a pierced ring through each of his eyebrows.

"I put it behind me. I told myself this is over. Then you find out that's a lie. You can't put it behind you."

The priest who molested Starkey, Father Joseph M. Lessard, spent just six hours in jail. He was charged with two felonies -- sexual misconduct with a minor and dangerous crimes against children -- but both counts were reduced in a plea agreement.

Lessard was a close friend of O'Brien. The night of the attack against Starkey, Lessard went directly to O'Brien's house and told the bishop a 14-year-old boy was accusing him of sexual molestation.

O'Brien later told police that he and Lessard had a confessional conversation, and he was forbidden from cooperating with them. But he wrote a personal letter to Judge Michael D. Ryan requesting leniency for Lessard because he felt the priest had expressed "extreme remorse."

Ryan sentenced Lessard to three years' probation and a $100 fine.

In the wake of O'Brien's written confession that he helped protect accused priests, Starkey agreed to talk for the first time publicly about his attack. He says he did so because he wants people to understand what the victims go through: how their lives are ruined, their trust is shattered, and in too many cases, their families are pulled apart.

"I've had nightmares the last 10 years of my life," Starkey said in a soft voice, nervously twisting a cardboard cup of coffee in his hands.

"I can't hold a job. I can't keep friends. My wife and my children are all I have and even with them our relationship is rough."

Starkey works from home buying and selling merchandise on the Internet via e-Bay.

"I've been in job interviews where I'm almost crying. I can't explain it. All of a sudden, your ears get red and you feel small and naked. I walk around a lot feeling naked to the world."

He says he has come close to holding down a few jobs and making a few friends. But something always seems to happen; the horror always comes back to life.

"Any time you start to do something where you get to the point where you are making friends or get successful to the point where it is about to take off, you back away," he said, his eyes fixating on a photograph he has brought of himself when he was 13, flanked by O'Brien and Lessard.

Like many victims, Starkey said he refused to deal with his pain for years. But he sought counseling about a year ago and the Diocese of Phoenix agreed to help, sending him to a therapist at church expense.

"It only lasted a couple of months because they got way too much into my personal life," Starkey said. "Not the stuff about my incident. They wanted to know things like the smallest transactions in my checking account. We never got around to talking about Joe."

Joe is what Starkey always called Lessard, even in the mid-1980s when Starkey was a slender blond altar boy and his parents let him go on field trips with the priest.

"Those were different times," Starkey said. "Parents didn't worry so much about leaving their children with other people, especially priests."


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