Tears, Anger over Priest's Probation
His Fate in the Archdiocese's Only Criminal Abuse Case Left the Judge Anguished, the D.A. " Appalled."
His Victim Was Forgiving
By Stephan Salisbury
December 10, 2005
A Common Pleas Court judge, dabbing tears from her eyes as she told of agonizing over "the right thing to do," sentenced a Roman Catholic priest yesterday to 12 years of probation in the only criminal case arising from the church sex-abuse scandal in Philadelphia. The district attorney, in response, said she was "appalled and disappointed."
The Rev. James Behan, 61, pleaded guilty in February to repeatedly sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy, a student at North Catholic High School, in the late 1970s.
Judge Pamela Dembe's courtroom, packed with Behan supporters who traveled by bus from Wilmington, N.C., home of Behan's last parish, echoed with sighs of relief. Supporters hugged each other, many saying, "Thank God it's over."
Gene Donohoe, whose younger brother, Martin, was the victim, said the sentence surprised the family.
"The judge made a decision, and we have to live with it," he said.
Behan faced a maximum of 25 years in prison. Assistant District Attorney Charles Gallagher asked Dembe to impose a sentence of 11 to 22 years on the main charge, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse.
"I think the judge ruled with her heart and not with the law," Gene Donohoe said.
Martin Donohoe, 42, did not comment. Gallagher, the prosecutor, left court without comment.
Several hours after the sentencing, District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham said in a statement: "I am appalled and disappointed. This is a sad day for Mr. Donohoe and for all victims of sexual abuse."
Behan, a dapper man with a white, closely clipped mustache who was wearing a blue blazer with a maroon and navy scarf draped around his neck like a vestment, apologized for his actions in court and spoke directly to the victim.
It was his first such apology since the abuse stopped 25 years ago, he admitted.
"It is not within our ability to change the past," Behan said. "There are no words adequate to express my contrition."
"I want to say to [Martin Donohoe's] brother, partner, family and friends, 'I'm sorry,' " he continued. "You bear the pain of the one you love."
Martin Donohoe, in a wheelchair due to a nerve disease, said the apology was deeply meaningful.
"I do forgive you. I do forgive you for what you've admitted to here," he said to Behan. "I do forgive... . Anger will kill you."
Donohoe testified to his years of therapy, anxieties, suicide attempts - all, he said, stemming from repeated assaults by Behan, a member of the the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales order of priests and a religion teacher at North Catholic.
Dembe also invited supporters from North Carolina to speak before she sentenced Behan. Several came forward to describe his compassion, selflessness and trustworthiness.
Behan has not abused anyone in 25 years, according to earlier testimony, and the North Carolina parishioners affirmed that.
According to the District Attorney's Office, Pennsylvania's clock on the statute of limitations stopped in 1980, when Behan left the state for North Carolina. He was removed from public ministry in 2002, when Donohoe brought the accusations and Behan admitted the abuse.
Behan, who ministers to priests at a church retirement home in Maryland, was charged last year.
In September, a Philadelphia grand jury issued a scathing report citing hundreds of instances of sexual abuse of children that church leaders allowed to go unpunished. The report said at least 63 priests - and probably many more - had been involved in such assaults going back many years.
Dembe said she had worried about appropriate sentencing for "many months."
"I can't pretend to anyone that I know what's the right thing to do," she said. Then, turning to Martin Donohoe, she said: "I've been worried about you for all this time, Mr. Donohoe... . And in your remarks, I can't tell you how relieved I was to hear that you've reached the point of personal forgiveness."
Dembe added that she "shared" anger over the church's handling of abuse cases. "I only hope that those who care about the church... keep fighting it and stop this."
At several points, as she delivered meditative comments arising from the case, Dembe dabbed her eyes with a tissue and paused to compose herself.
"Where I get stuck in this case is I don't know how to balance one very terrible violation... a teacher's abuse of a child," she said. "I don't know how to balance that against the 30 years that followed."
Those 30 years, she said, citing testimony of parishioners from North Carolina, where Behan went in 1980, were not only free of sexual license but filled with a compassionate ministry.
In the end, she decided jail was not appropriate. Dembe also lifted a ban on contact between Behan and Donohoe.
"I have a sense of unfinished business between these two men," she said.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.