An Abusive Priest Tells His Story

By Jeremy Kohler
Scripps Howard News Service
March 18, 2002

The Rev. Joseph P. Lessard was a Catholic parish priest, a choir director, a religion teacher, a hospital chaplain. People who know him say he was jolly and gentle, a comfort to the sick. When he retired in 1993, he felt he had led the liturgical life he had always imagined.

That is, except for those times when Lessard said he sexually abused about 12 boys at three different parishes - some of them repeatedly, at least one for more than a year.

Almost every incident began the same: A boy of about 12 would come to him with private questions. "Children were curious about sex," Lessard said in a recent interview. "They ask about their own bodies growing up."

Lessard would assure each boy it was natural to explore his own body. "And then I would show them how to do it," he said.

Lessard, 75, lives alone in a three-room cabin on a Mississippi River bluff outside of Prairie du Rocher, Ill. Most days, he celebrates Mass alone from a pulpit he crafted from white pine. He bakes hosts from flour, salt and water and blesses them. He dons the vestments and begins his liturgy.

The incidents never made headlines. Lessard was never sued or charged with a crime. Throughout the 1970s, a few families complained to the archdiocese about the abuse, he said. Lessard said he would hear about the complaints secondhand, never from a superior.

The archdiocese never asked him to admit or deny an accusation, he said. Archdiocese lawyers working on his behalf settled one complaint for $60,000 in 1997. They settled another complaint without a payment in 1996 by promising Lessard was no longer with a parish.

Lessard has never apologized to his victims, although he said he is sorry.

"I'd like to think they've forgotten about it and don't care anymore," he said.

A few months after his ordination, Lessard became assistant pastor at St. George Church in south St. Louis County, a large parish. He stayed for nine years. He trained and directed 180 altar boys. He oversaw a school with 1,300 children. He ran soccer teams. He directed a choir and translated Gregorian chants into English for young singers.

Lessard said he never touched a child at St. George. There were urges, far below the surface. He barely acknowledged them, let alone discussed them. During the next eight years he served in two other parishes and did not harm a child. He was busy and happy.

In February 1969, he was transferred to Moselle, a tiny parish in rural Missouri to become pastor of St. Mary's Church. He had lots of free time. Lessard said his sexual attraction to young boys began to fester.

"I guess I just kind of broke down," he said.

His first victim was a boy of about 12, the son of a couple from a neighboring parish whom he knew well. Lessard, an avid outdoorsman, arranged a fishing trip.

After fishing, he took the boy back to the rectory and "started fooling around," which he said involved touching each other's genitals and masturbating.

"I emotionally and physically wanted to have sex with him," Lessard said. "There was a mutual interest in having sexual gratification."

The abuse went on for a couple years. As far as he knew, the boy never told. Lessard said he seduced about nine boys over the next seven years, most of them from the neighboring parish. The exact number is hazy in his mind, as are the names of the boys.

Lessard said he was guilt-free, believing he was educating the boys in sex. He didn't consider this breaking his vow of celibacy. It didn't seem as if he was hurting anyone.

To each boy he said, "Let's not tell your parents about this."

But at least one boy did tell, Lessard said. It was 1976. Cardinal John Joseph Carberry, then archbishop of St. Louis, called Lessard and said he was switching him to Good Shepherd Church in Hillsboro, Mo. The cardinal, who died in 1998, never gave a reason why, Lessard said.

"I've gotten the impression it was because of the complaints coming in," Lessard said.

Lessard said he molested a boy at Good Shepherd. It was late 1976, and he recognized his addiction to young boys as a problem. Lessard resigned from Good Shepherd and checked into a hospital in Minnesota.

On Feb. 1, 1977, Lessard was assigned as an associate pastor of Incarnate Word Church in Chesterfield, Mo. But two years later he was sent to a halfway house in New Mexico. Carberry said he wanted Lessard to go there for treatment.

In New Mexico, Lessard joined group sessions with other pedophile priests, and talked extensively with doctors. Lessard returned to St. Louis in 1980. He was assigned as Catholic chaplain-in-residence at a local hospital and worked there and at other hospitals until his retirement in 1993.

Once working in hospitals, Lessard said, he no longer had an urge to touch boys.

He was doing important work again. He was needed. And he had a chance to make a success of his career, "aside from the 10 years that I got tangled up in this business."


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