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Nevada Priest Pleads Guilty To Lewdness, Abuse Charges

Jan 2, 2003 | AP A Catholic priest pleaded guilty Thursday to fondling and abusing teenage boys at his Henderson parish.

Mark Thomas Roberts, 51, will be stripped of his priesthood and will likely get three years probation under a plea bargain that avoids trial, a prosecutor and Roberts'lawyer said.

The mother of one of five teens in the case sobbed as Roberts said,"guilty,"while Clark County District Court Judge Joseph Bonaventure read the explicit allegations against him.

"Reliving out loud in the courtroom what he has done"was difficult, said Debora Tullgren, who told reporters later that she will ask a judge to send Roberts to jail at his March 10 sentencing.

"He has affected and changed so many lives,"Tullgren said.

Roberts pleaded guilty to one count of open and gross lewdness and four counts of child abuse and neglect. Each is a gross misdemeanor that could lead to one year in county jail and a $2,000 fine.

Tullgren spoke by cell phone to her son, now 20, but declined to share his reaction to the plea.

"We're hoping this is the start of healing for the whole Roman Catholic community,"Tullgren said."We separate the priest from the doctrine that we know."

Prosecutor Douglas Herndon said Roberts will have to register as a sex offender and will be barred from dealings with minors.

Roberts'lawyer, George Foley Sr., said avoiding prison was key to the agreement.

"He's going to be apologizing to the victims,"Foley said.

Prosecutors dropped two charges of using boys to produce pornographic photos, felonies that could have drawn five years in prison each. One of five child abuse and neglect charges also was dropped.

Roberts acknowledged instructing the teens in apparent rituals of penance during which they were made to undress and stand with their arms out as if they were on a cross.

He responded,"Yes, your honor,"when the judge asked him if he verbally abused and struck some boys, had them whip themselves with cords, instructed them to massage themselves or had them massage him.

"This is a step in the right direction, for a priest to be willing to plead guilty,"said Thomas Bara, a Las Vegas representative of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

Roberts was removed from St. Peter the Apostle Church on Jan. 31, 2001, and suspended with pay by the Diocese of Las Vegas after six boys reported he molested them. Roberts spent months at facilities outside Nevada for treatment of an undisclosed medical condition.

The allegations made Roberts the first Nevada priest accused in a nationwide church sex abuse scandal.

A Reno priest, Monsignor Robert Bowling, has taken a leave of absence in response to five lawsuits filed by four women in Kentucky and one in Reno alleging he molested them. Bowling had been pastor at St. Therese the Little Flower Church in Reno since 1974.

Roberts, the Las Vegas diocese, and its past and present bishops were named in a civil lawsuit filed March 22 in Clark County District Court by six former parishioners claiming Roberts abused them when they were ages 14 to 17.

Attorney Albert Massi, now representing nine young males and their families in the civil case, said Thursday's plea bolsters their claim to unspecified monetary damages.

"My hope is that now the people who were previously supporting this person will support the people who were taken advantage of,"Massi said.

The head of the Las Vegas Catholic diocese issued a statement expressing sadness, and said church officials were praying for those involved.

"We have been through a great deal this past year and we continue to focus on the healing process for the sake of the victims, our diocese and its members,"Bishop Joseph Pepe said.

Roberts remains free on $13,000 bail.





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