Ex-Priest's Parole Hearing Attracts Dozens

By Stan Finger
Wichita Eagle
July 30, 2004

Some spoke quietly, almost in whispers, as they sat face-to-face with the two Kansas Parole Board members.

Others stood and, their voices and hands shaking, spoke forcefully toward the dozens of people packing the third-floor meeting room of the Finney State Office Building in Wichita on Thursday.

Two security guards took it all in, making sure emotions didn't mushroom into confrontation at the public comment session for the possible parole of Robert Larson.

Larson is a former Catholic priest now in prison for molesting three altar boys and a teenager while he was pastor of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Newton in the mid-1980s.

Larson, who is serving a three- to 10-year sentence at Lansing Correctional Facility, was denied parole two years ago.

Paroling Larson this time would be "just like a stab in the heart" for his victims and their families, said Janet Patterson of Conway Springs, a national board member of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Her son committed suicide in 1999 only months after confiding to his family that he had been molested as a child by Larson.

Two of the altar boys Larson admitted molesting spoke to the board, as did relatives of four former altar boys for Larson who have committed suicide. Larson denies having molested any of the suicide victims, but the boys' family members are unconvinced.

"I wish I could tell you my son will be home on a certain day," Rachel Rodriguez said of her son, Gilbert, who killed himself in September 1998. "Unfortunately, the reality is he's never coming home."

Monsignor William Carr was among a handful of priests who asked parole board members Paul Feleciano and Marilyn Scafe to let Larson out of prison. Carr cited William Shakespeare's words that the evil men do lives long after them, while the good is interred with their bones.

"And so it is with Robert Larson," Carr said. "What a pity that we forget the many, many outstanding things that this man has done."

Patterson acknowledged that Larson did a lot of good in the 30 years he was a priest before he was quickly and quietly removed from the pulpit and sent out of state in 1988. But "this is not a balancing act," she said.

Sister Mary Schoenecker asked Larson's victims: "Are you willing to free this man? Are you ready to free yourselves from the anger and the resentment you naturally feel toward him?"

Until they do, she said, "you are held hostage . . . and you remain forever as his victims."

But Shelley Young, the sister of Gilbert Rodriguez and cousin of Paul Tafolla, former altar boys for Larson who committed suicide 17 months apart, said she'll be a Larson victim for the rest of her life.

When her brother committed suicide, she said, "a part of me died that day, too."

Monsignor Charles Regan asked the parole board to show mercy to Larson, and expressed frustration that so many people addressing the board had nothing to do with the charges for which Larson was convicted.

Before addressing the board, the Rev. Michael Peltzer talked of the need for healing and forgiveness.

"The sacrament of holy orders does not make us superhuman," he said. "We are still the same sinners that we were before the ordination. None of us are perfect, only forgiven."

The parole board will meet with Larson at Lansing on Wednesday. A ruling is expected in September.

Under the sentencing laws in place at the time of the crimes, Larson can be held in prison no later than March 29, 2006.

When he is released, he will be under supervised parole until 2011, Feleciano said, and any violation of the terms of his release - including something as seemingly minor as reading forbidden magazines or unapproved use of the Internet - could send him back to prison.


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