A Scottsdale priest with a history of sexual misconduct was allowed to continue ministering to women and children despite a warning from therapists that he posed a risk to the church even after six months of counseling.
Documents obtained by The Arizona Republic show that in early 1999 senior church officials, including Bishop Thomas J. O’Brien, were aware of at least six complaints of improper sexual conduct by the Rev. Patrick Colleary during a span of three decades, beginning with his first assignment in the diocese.
A woman who contacted The Arizona Republic this week said she was fondled by Colleary in 1974 when she was 17 years old and the priest was newly assigned to Phoenix. The woman said she went to Colleary for counseling after one of her brother’s friends exposed himself to her.
“I was coming to him with a problem of a sexual nature, something I had never told anyone – and he responded with his own sexual desires,” said Kathleen McCabe Lecheler, a Phoenix native who now lives in Austin, Texas. “He was very charismatic and manipulated my emotions. There were just so many episodes.”
Colleary has admitted fathering a child in 1978 with another woman who came to him for counseling at Sts. Simon and Jude parish.
He denies a third allegation that he groped an 11-year-old boy at Holy Spirit parish in Tempe in 1979 and says that incident was put to rest when he passed a polygraph test, though he admits he has no record of the test.
Lecheler, who eventually had a consensual sexual relationship with Colleary when she was an adult, said Colleary once talked to her about the Tempe allegations and boasted he could pass a lie detector test.
“He said, ‘You know, you can beat those things’ – meaning the polygraph,” Lecheler told The Republic. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, my God. Why would he say that?'”
In 1997, Colleary spent six months undergoing treatment at St. Luke Institute, a nationally known center in Silver Spring, Md., for priests with substance and behavioral problems.
He was released in early 1998 and, despite his history, was assigned to Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Scottsdale. Within a year, his counselors at St. Luke’s said they were made aware of three new complaints of improper conduct against Colleary.
“The fact that this is post-treatment behavior suggests that Father Colleary’s capacity to benefit from corrective counsel was somewhat diminished,” the therapists wrote on Jan. 26, 1999. “Given the number and nature of complaints over the years, it is reasonable to anticipate that history will be repeated in some way.”
The counselors urged Colleary to begin taking anti-psychotic medicine. They also recommended “that he not work with minors or women, and when in the presence of children and women, he adopt a strict no-touch policy and avoid any references to sexuality.”
The letter was marked confidential and addressed to the Rev. Thomas Zurcher, a top aide to O’Brien and vicar for the Office of Priest Personnel. In their report, the two counselors reference an earlier psychological evaluation of Colleary they sent to O’Brien on May 6, 1997 – shortly before he the priest was admitted to St. Luke.
A second letter, also marked confidential and addressed to O’Brien in July 2000, noted that Colleary had attended a workshop at St. Luke’s the last week of June that year “as part of his ongoing recovery process” and that he appeared to be making good progress.
“It appears that Father Colleary continues to be honest and vulnerable with his group and gives evidence of a desire to grow and to learn,” four official of St. Luke’s wrote.
The Rev. David A. Myers, Colleary’s attorney, said Colleary would not comment on “legally confidential matters” and said the priest deplored the “violation of his personal right to privacy and the violation of his legal right to doctor-patient confidentiality.”
In two statements faxed to media outlets Tuesday and Wednesday, the Diocese of Phoenix denounced the release of “improperly obtained reports,” which church officials said present a “distorted and fragmented representation of Fr. Colleary’s therapeutic history and circumstances of his assignment.”
The statement said Colleary was undergoing additional therapy with two Valley psychologists and that those sessions “were part of a system of safeguards to ensure that at no time did Father Colleary present a significant risk of harm.”
The Republic asked officials of the Diocese by phone and in writing to detail the “system of safeguards” designed to protect parishioners from abusive priests. Those requests went unanswered.
In the faxes to media outlets, diocesan officials said they were limiting their remarks because of concerns about Colleary’s privacy. But they stressed they been open with the priest’s counselors about the complaints.
“The Diocese did ensure that information of this alleged misconduct in the 1970s was communicated to Father Colleary’s treatment providers for their consideration in assessing the appropriateness of Father Colleary’s assignment and supervision,” the two-page statement read.
“We understand that the response of the diocese may be criticized as less than complete. However the questions being present to the Diocese are the result of egregious violations of Father Colleary’s privacy rights by certain media outlets. While the Diocese might receive better media treatment with a more detailed response, it would be at the price of violating father Colleary’s privacy even more so than has already occurred. This we will not do.”
Lecheler, who attended Sts. Simon and Jude Elementary School and was active in the parish youth ministry, said she met Colleary when she was in high school and met him often for dinners, including the night of her graduation.
“He said the graduation mass and I went to dinner with him instead of going to the graduation party,” she remembers. “That night he took my hand and put it on his crotch.”
Lecheler said that from late 1974 to the fall of 1976, when she was 17 to 19 years old, she often met Colleary for dinners, movies and retreats and that those meetings almost always involved “sexual activity other than intercourse.” She said in 1976 she moved to Idaho Falls to get away from Colleary, but the priest called her and she returned to Phoenix.
“I never knew how he found me,” she said. “I thought he wanted me to come back – that maybe things were going to be different; maybe he loved me.”
In 1978, when she was 21, Lecheler said she and Colleary began a two-year consensual sexual relationship that she broke off with the help of another priest friend.
Lecheler said she agonized before going public with her complaints about Colleary. She said she decided to do so in part because the Phoenix diocese seemed to be downplaying the allegations of two other women – Sharon Roy, who gave birth to Colleary’s daughter in 1978, and Doris Kennedy, who accused Colleary of groping her son.
“I want to validate Sharon Roy, Doris Kennedy and those out there who are having a difficult time coming forward,” she said. “This is a man who has an illness who should not be in a position to be in the ministry as a priest.
“To those who are afraid to come forward, remember you were the victim of this illness. Please speak out so others can be protected. There are many that will support you, I promise.”
Lecheler said senior officials in the diocese, including O’Brien, were dismissive of her when she first complained about Colleary.
“They patted me on the head and said they you and just kept moving him from parish to parish,” she said.
Kennedy, who has been battling the diocese for years, agreed.
“How can they keep covering up like this?” she said. “It’s disgraceful. O’Brien has no regard for little children.”