Maria Godel trembled as she clicked through Arizona’s sex-offender Web site to a photo of Mark Lehman, the Phoenix priest who molested her.
The 23-year-old knew she would feel shaken when Lehman, 40, was released from prison in February. The priest served 10 years for abusing Godel and other students at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic School in the late 1980s.
But nothing prepared Godel for the shock of learning that the Phoenix Diocese is still financially supporting Lehman.
“I cannot explain how angry it makes me,” said Godel, blinking back tears. “The church treated us like we were the problem and has continued to support a man who devastated our lives.”
As the Roman Catholic Church struggles with the controversy over sexually abusive priests, the question of how to treat clerics with a history of child molestation looms large.
U.S. cardinals meeting with Pope John Paul II this week called for revising church rules to expedite the removal of priests who abuse children.
But they announced no clear procedures on what to do with priests such as Lehman, who have been in prison, are undergoing treatment and claim to have repented.
On one hand, church officials say they must support and forgive those in their service, no matter how much they may revile their actions. On the other, officials must also restore trust with a laity unhappy that a secret code of the collar put children at risk.
“Certainly, I disapprove of the way that church leadership allowed this to happen,” said Ann Davis, a parishioner at St. Patrick’s in Scottsdale. “But we can love the sinner but hate the sin.”
A unique tie
Experts in church law said the relationship between a diocese and a priest cannot be compared to that of an employer and an employee in the secular world, where a sex offender would be barred from such professions as, say, teaching or law.
“There is a lifelong relationship between a priest and the church, and an obligation for the church to support a priest, even if he goes off the deep end,” said Monsignor Thomas Green of Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
Lehman received an advance of $1,000 from the Phoenix Diocese when he was released from prison and $400 more to set up an apartment, said Rev. Mike Diskin, assistant chancellor of the diocese.
The diocese also is paying for state-required treatment programs and health insurance for Lehman, who remains a priest though he is suspended from ministerial duties.
Diskin said Phoenix Bishop Thomas O’Brien has referred Lehman’s case to the Vatican, which could choose to dismiss the priest or send his case back to Phoenix for diocese officials to determine his fate.
“A policy of ‘one strike you’re out’ doesn’t necessarily mean (dismissal),” Diskin said. “It could mean no ability to be in active ministry.”
While people like Godel are incensed, some Phoenix parishioners said they would be disappointed if the diocese cast Lehman aside.
“To me it would be hypocritical if the church turned its back,” said Tom Takash, a parishioner at St. Paul’s parish.
But a priest who runs one of the country’s most prominent psychological treatment centers said practical considerations could lead the church to dismiss abusive clerics.
“The damage to the church’s credibility is so large, and the legal and financial fallout is so great, that many of our leaders feel forced to expel them all,” wrote the Rev. Stephen. J. Rossetti, president of the St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., in the most recent issue of America, a Jesuit publication.
Lehman is among a handful of priests who have been convicted of a sex crime in the United States; scores of other priests have been accused. Published reports estimate the church has paid more than $1 billion in damages and settlements.
In Tucson, where the diocese recently settled civil cases involving priests who reportedly molested altar boys, the two living priests named in the lawsuits continue to receive financial support from the diocese. Like Lehman, their priestly responsibilities have been suspended.
Victims fault diocese
But victims and their supporters said it’s a matter of justice rather than forgiveness. They say the Phoenix Diocese has a poor record of offering support to those who have been harmed by priests.
“The thing they need to figure out is he’s not the worker of God,” said Daniel Rhodes, 20, Godel’s brother. .
Elizabeth Evarts Hasel, whose daughter, Laura, was molested by Lehman at the age of 9, said the diocese never apologized or offered pastoral support. Meanwhile, Laura, now 22, spent her teenage years cycling in and out of psychiatric hospitals.
“None of these children received solace or comfort from the church,” said Evarts Hasel, a psychologist. “The diocese was afraid that would admit its liability.”
As it stands, the state, not the church, is supervising Lehman.
He lives in a downtown Mesa residential hotel where rooms are rented by the week. His outings are limited to work in a warehouse, community service, sex-offender treatment, parole appointments and grocery shopping after 9 p.m.
He is prohibited from entering a church or anyplace else where he might find a child.
In a brief interview at his doorstep, Lehman said he intends to comply with the terms of his parole and just wants to be left alone.
“I’ve served 10 years. I’m on house arrest,” he said. “The alleged victims have nothing to fear from me.”
Lehman took a plea agreement during an emotional 1991 trial that sent a parade of children to the witness stand.
Prosecutors were seeking a life sentence for Lehman, nicknamed “Chester the Molester” by students at St. Thomas. But the County Attorney’s Office grew worried the jury would be charmed by the priest.
A handsome man who wore his hair over his shoulders and who some parishioners likened in appearance to Jesus Christ, Lehman drew legions of supporters to the courtroom.
During the trial, the atmosphere was hostile, said Laura Reckart, a former Maricopa County deputy attorney who prosecuted the case. The priest’s supporters taunted the victims’ families and swore at her, she said.
“The victims were being treated as if they were the bad people,” said Reckart, who now works for the state attorney general.
Church officials cooperated with prosecutors, “but weren’t particularly helpful.”
She said the evidence was overwhelming that Lehman had fondled at least five little girls and sodomized Rhodes.
In a risk-assessment study, Lehman revealed that he had been attracted to children in the past, and a pre-sentencing report concluded that his behavior at St. Thomas was part of an ongoing problem.
The American Psychiatric Association states that pedophilia, a preference for sexual activity with children who have not reached puberty, is usually chronic and lifelong. Treatment programs emphasize relapse prevention.
Department of Corrections records show that Lehman did not receive sex-offender treatment while incarcerated, though he did complete a program designed as an orientation to treatment.
Tough to report abuse
“I don’t want another family to have to go through what we went through,” said Maria Godel, the first child to report the abuse. “But at the same time, I pray that he’ll screw up so he’ll have to go back to prison.”
Lehman used threats to keep his victims quiet, promising that bad things would happen to them and their families if they reported him.
For a time, it worked. The three children who Lehman molested in Godel’s family were unaware their siblings also were victims. All were too scared to tell a soul.
But coming forward has proved painful, too.
“I remember a counselor telling us that drug use, teen pregnancy, divorce and suicide tend to happen more in families where children were molested,” Godel said. “We’ve had everything except a suicide.”
None of the victims interviewed remains active in the Catholic Church.
“I deeply miss the core of Catholicism,” Evarts Hasel said. “But as for the administration of the church, I don’t believe they’ve invited God there for a very long time.”