Priest Gets Probation, Jail

By Andy Nelesen
Green Bay Press-Gazette
December 17, 2004

Sexual-assault victim calls ruling 'failure of justice system'

Mark Hodek remained calm through most of the hearing where a Brown County judge was to pronounce sentence on the priest convicted of molesting Hodek at age 14.

But when Judge Sue Bischel opted to forgo prison and placed the Rev. James Stein on probation for 10 years, tears filled the corners of Hodek's eyes. His jaw clenched and his fists balled.

And when Bischel ruled that Stein would not have to register as a sex offender, emotions got the best of the now-30-year-old victim and he bolted from the courtroom in anger.

Bischel's ruling added insult to injury, he said.

"I really believe it's a failure of the justice system," Hodek said. He was a student at the then-Premontre High School in Green Bay when Stein befriended him and fondled him three times while visiting the St. Norbert Abbey pool in De Pere.

"I really wanted to see the guy go to prison, but the fact that he is not even going to have to register as a sex offender ... appalls me," Hodek said. "I think that is awful."

At the start of the two-hour hearing, Hodek sat quietly and waited to tell Bischel how the events in the summer of 1988 have affected his life. The anxiety in his eyes and his pursed lips belied his outward calmness.

Hodek spoke for less than three minutes during the proceedings. A calm, clear voice carried his message.

"When I was younger, the impact of this crime exposed itself in suicidal thoughts and made me a timid boy, afraid of both those in positions of authority and my peers," Hodek said. "I had something to hide from everyone.

"Profound mistrust of those in positions of authority is still something that I deal with daily. In my experience, absolute power does corrupt absolutely."

Life has been difficult, even more than a decade after the touching, Hodek said. The aftermath exists every day.

"Perhaps the biggest impact this assault has had on me is just beginning to show itself at this point in my life," he said. "I am a single 30-year-old with no intention of having children. My desire to remain childless evolves from an irrational fear of keeping children safe.

"The fear of knowing my child went out of my watch and could be with someone like Father Stein keeps me from wanting children. This desire to remain childless is at least partially responsible for my recently failed engagement."

As Hodek left the stand and returned to his front row pew, the confidence subsided and his eyes faded into a thousand-yard stare.

He had done all he could.

"Even though I don't agree with the ruling of the judge, I felt like I did what I could," Hodek said. "I've closed this chapter of my life and there's nothing more that I can do. I left it in the hands of the judicial system and what they gave me back was not what I was hoping for, but it was the best outcome I could generate."

Prosecutors -- and Hodek -- had asked for five years in prison, half of the maximum possible penalty. Stein had pleaded no contest to one count of second-degree sexual assault of child in August. Prosecutors dismissed two similar felony charges as part of a plea agreement.

Stein was convicted in 1991 of fourth-degree sexual assault -- and sentenced to probation -- for fondling a college student in the Abbey pool, and prosecutors are aware of another boy's allegations that were not prosecuted because the statute of limitations had expired.

Stein's lawyer argued for probation and jail if Bischel saw fit.

Bischel imposed a 10-year prison term, but stayed the sentence, which means Stein will not serve the time if he is successful on probation.

Bischel included a year in jail with work release and good time provisions as part of her ruling, which means Stein will only serve 274 days -- about nine months -- if he behaves himself while in jail.

He is to report to jail Jan. 4.

Stein wept openly at several points in the hearing, but composed himself as he made a statement to the court.

"I don't know what else to say, but to apologize for things I did in my 20s," Stein told Bischel. "I can't say I am sorry enough. I know that doesn't help their family and it doesn't help Mr. Hodek. It's just words.

"I really took it upon myself since '91, that I was going to make up for things in my past. And I believe I have done that."

Stein said he continues to take medication for depression and has little left of the life he knew three years ago.

"I don't want to sound pitiful, but I don't have much left," he said. "I don't have a reputation ... I don't have a career left. I'm not a priest anymore, I'm not a psychologist any more. I don't know what I am.

"But I hope in the last 13 years I have tried to make some people's lives a little bit better and make up for some of the stuff that I did before and in embarrassing my family, the Norbertine community."

In making her ruling, Bischel noted that Stein has not reoffended since his 1991 conviction and had a long list of positive contributions to society, which included coaching, mentoring and providing scholarships for underprivileged students.

"This is a horrendous, horrendous blot, a cancer, in the person that Mr. Stein is," Bischel said. "It was a major cancer, but it is the only thing negative that I read about in his character, but I have received a lot of letters from priests and members of the church. I have received at least as many letters from other professionals and lay people who describe a person I wish I was more like in terms of serving the community."

The fact that the church suspended Stein after the 1991 conviction and ordered him into two years of inpatient therapy also carried some weight.

"There was a time when Mr. Stein presented an enormous risk to the public ... an overwhelming enormous threat to the young men and boys in Green Bay and he damaged at least three that we know of," Bischel said. "The evidence is that that risk has been greatly ameliorated or gone."

Bischel noted that had Stein not been a priest, the case would have been handled differently.

"But for the fact that this gentleman was formerly a priest, (prosecutors) would not, I do not believe, be recommending a prison sentence for a fondling case," she said. "I have never seen it happen.

"Probation and jail time is pretty much universally recommended."

Hodek said he can accept Thursday's ruling and wants to move on to the next chapter in his life. Even though his view of the church is forever skewed, he said he retains a relationship with God. He plans to return to his job as a hunting and fishing guide in Montana.

"I guess part of the reason I chose that occupation is because I'd rather deal with animals than people every day," Hodek said with a chuckle.

"I am satisfied in the fact that I can move on because I have done what I can," he said. "There's nothing more I can do in this situation."


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