Lawyer: Priest Will Plead Guilty to Sex Charges

By Andrew Tilghman and Chris Amos
Navy Times
December 5, 2007

An HIV-positive Catholic Navy chaplain plans to plead guilty Thursday to charges involving sexual misconduct with an unspecified number of men, according to his attorney, who said the priest has known of his HIV status for more than two years.

The chaplain, Lt. Cmdr. John Thomas Matthew Lee, 42, is facing a general court-martial in Quantico, Va. He had been charged with sodomy, aggravated assault, indecent assault, fraternization and conduct unbecoming a military officer, according to a Marine Corps statement. His attorney, David Sheldon, said Lee will plead guilty to "many" of those charges, but would not say which. Three witnesses will testify Thursday, he said.

Marine officials refused to release Lee's charge sheet, which typically would give the number of specifications, explain why he is being charged and how much jail time he faces if convicted.

Neither Sheldon nor the Corps offered any details regarding the victims in the case. Sources said the sexual partners in question are all men.

"He has entered into a pretrial agreement with the government that will substantially reduce his exposure to confinement," said Sheldon, who added that Lee was facing life without parole if convicted on all charges. "He's extremely remorseful about what happened and about his conduct, both as a chaplain and as an officer. He will take responsibility for what he has done."

Sheldon said an Article 32 hearing was waived, but would not say whether that was a condition of the pretrial agreement.

"I cannot discuss the terms of the pretrial agreement," he said.

When asked how long Lee has known he's had HIV, Sheldon answered, "I think I've seen reports that say since May 2005."

The Archdiocese of Washington, where Lee was ordained in 1993, received allegations of sexual misconduct in June and subsequently "removed his faculties to perform Mass," said Susan Gibbs, a diocesan spokeswoman. He also was relieved of his military duties in June, though military officials would not disclose his current duty status or unit.

As of Tuesday night, Lee was a patient at National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Md. When reached by phone in his hospital room, he declined to comment on the upcoming court-martial.

"No thank you, no thank you. I don't wish to talk," he said, before abruptly hanging up.

Sources said Lee is facing aggravated assault charges because he is HIV-positive. In cases dating to 1987, military prosecutors have brought criminal charges for HIV-positive troops who have unprotected sex and fail to inform their partners. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces in 1991 approved the use of the aggravated assault charge in such cases.

Lee served as a chaplain at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., from 2003 to 2006, and was transferred then to Quantico, according to military records.

From April 2001 to September 2003, Lee was stationed in Gaeta, Italy, with Naval Forces Europe, 6th Fleet Detachment, and on the guided-missile cruiser Port Royal from 1998 to 2001, records show.

Paul Sexton, a former sonar technician second class who served aboard Port Royal from 1999 until 2003, said he worked with Lee on public service projects in Hong Kong; Pusan, South Korea; and in Hawaii.

"Every time we had one of these projects, we would talk," he said. "He was a role model for a lot of us. I thought he was fantastic. He was one of those junior officers who you could talk to about anything. He was more a confidant than a political figure."

Sexton said that during that time, he never heard or saw Lee behave inappropriately.

"He was a fantastic person," Sexton said.

A Naval Academy graduate and former Navy surface warfare officer who is a member of a group of openly gay academy alumni said on Wednesday that if the charges were true, and if they involved midshipmen, it would have been unethical on several levels.

"Any priest having sex with anybody is unethical to begin with," said the former officer, who asked not to be identified by name. "But when you are a midshipman, you are learning about rank, duty, honor, loyalty. He is supposed to be guiding them, helping them to become future leaders of not just the Navy, but the United States. If this guy had consensual sex with another officer, fine, that's OK, but if they are a midshipman, it is wrong, even if it's a day before they are commissioned."

The officer stressed that his objection was to fraternization, not to the presence of gay students at the academy.

"There are gay midshipman," he said. "And they are more open now than ever. There are gay midshipmen serving right now. People know about it. It is not a mystery."

Lee grew up near Philadelphia and graduated from the seminary St. Charles Borromeo in Wynnewood, Pa., in 1987, Navy records show.

From 1993 to 1996, Lee was assigned to St. Jerome's Parish in Hyattsville, Md., before becoming a chaplain, church records show.

In a press release Wednesday night, the Archdiocese for the Military Services said it had had no knowledge of allegations against Lee until he came to the diocese about them in June. The diocese said at that time it immediately suspended his faculties, adding, "Any misconduct violates human dignity, ministerial commitment" and their mission as a church.

A spokeswoman from the Naval Academy declined to comment Tuesday night.

More than 25 priests who have been in the military diocese have faced allegations of sexual misconduct in the past 30 years.

"We believe that the problem may be worse in the military than in other dioceses," said David Clohessy, the national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a victim's advocacy group.

"For a sex offender priest, the military is very attractive because of the transience of military families and the even greater authority and trust that comes with having two titles — both a priest and an officer," Clohessy said.

The Archdiocese for the Military Services has one of the largest member populations in the United States, and its geography spans the globe.


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