HIV-Positive Navy Priest Gets 2 Years for Sex Crimes

By Andrew Tilghman
Navy Times
December 6, 2007

Quantico, Va. — An HIV-positive Catholic Navy chaplain was sentenced Thursday to no more than two years in the brig for sexual misconduct with several men including an enlisted Marine, an Air Force officer and two Naval Academy midshipmen.

Military judge Col. Steven Day had recommended that Lt. Cmdr. John Thomas Matthew Lee serve 12 years in prison and ordered him dismissed from the Navy. Lee admitted to coercing a midshipman — who is now an ensign — into having sexual relations with him, convincing a Marine corporal to take nude photographs of him during a counseling session, and to knowingly exposing an Air Force lieutenant colonel to the HIV virus after he met that man on the Internet. The relationship with the second midshipman — who is also now an ensign — was consensual, and the two lived together.

His face covered with a jacket, Lt. Commander John Thomas Lee is escorted out of the courtroom on Thursday, Marine Corps Base Quantico.
Photo by M. Scott Mahaskey

But Lee, who could have faced a life sentence without the possibility of parole if the case had gone to trial, had all but two years of his sentence suspended under the terms of a plea agreement, which was negotiated in the weeks before Lee's general court-martial.

With time for good behavior, Lee, 42, will serve about 19 months in a military brig, defense attorney David Sheldon said after the hearing.

Sheldon said prosecutors traded a relatively light sentence for information that only Lee could provide about the identity of people he potentially infected so they can be notified of their exposure and tested.

"The Marine Corps should be recognized in this case because their primary interest here was to protect people," he said.

In the end, Lee pleaded guilty to two counts of sodomy, one count of aggravated assault, three counts of conduct unbecoming an officer, two counts of failure to obey a lawful order, and three lesser charges.

The one-day hearing featured testimony from an ensign and a former corporal, both of whom said they sought Lee out after experiencing personal and professional difficulties, only to be propositioned by him as they sat in his office. There was also testimony from a Catholic priest who said he had known Lee for more than 20 years, was "shocked" by the charges, and bristled at suggestions that Lee's behavior was worse because he was a chaplain.

The former Marine, who was identified only by his initials during the court-martial, eventually reported Lee, triggering the investigation that led to Thursday's proceedings.

Lee testified that the corporal resisted other inappropriate advances, but Lee said, "I asked him numerous times [to take nude photographs of Lee] and said it would be this one time, and this one time only."

The judge made Lee acknowledge that he knew his superior rank, as a lieutenant commander, affected the situation.

While at Annapolis, Lee said he invited a midshipman over to his apartment and gave him scotch and several beers even though he was underage.

"I asked him if he would mind if I performed oral sex on him. He responded, 'I don't care, I don't know, it's not my thing," Lee testified. "And before he could comment further, I walked over and unzipped his pants."

The young midshipman continued to protest, but Lee performed the sex act anyway.

Again he acknowledged to the judge that "because I was of superior rank, a lieutenant commander, and a chaplain, perhaps he felt intimidated by that rank and position."

The ensign said he sought Lee out after being placed on academic probation and having frequent disciplinary problems at the Naval Academy. Because he is Catholic and because Lee was outgoing and well-liked, the ensign said he began to confide in Lee. He spoke in a slow, halting voice of struggling with shame and embarrassment after the chaplain performed oral sex on him.

Both men said they were reluctant to turn Lee in because they felt that authorities would take a Navy officer's word over their own.

"I was disturbed by the fact that this was my priest, someone who knew my deepest, darkest secrets," the ensign said. "I didn't know how to react."

Lead prosecutor Maj. Derek Brostek called Lee a "predator" and a selfish man who had little regard for military good order and discipline, citing a picture taken at his office in the Naval Academy's Bancroft Hall that showed a naked Lee standing in front of a crucifix.

"The problem here is a [picture of a] naked chaplain fondling himself on a military installation," Brostek said, adding that Lee preyed on "the weak ones under guise of helping them."

Lee, flanked by Sheldon and a Marine defense attorney, sat upright and looked straight ahead as the judge read his sentence during the general court-martial as he did throughout most of the hearing. At one point, however, during a brief statement he made to the court, he turned to apologize to his two victims, but when he found they had left the courtroom, he faced the front again.

"I'd like to apologize to other chaplains ... for the dishonor I've brought upon them. I would like to apologize to everyone who wears the Navy uniform for all the harm that I have caused," he said. "That is all."

Lee also admitted denying his HIV status when the Air Force lieutenant colonel asked about his health, telling the judge, "I said everything was OK."

He told the judge that he fully understood that "he [the partner] could die because of having anal intercourse with me."


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