An 80-year-old Roman Catholic priest was sentenced Friday to two years in state prison for molesting a mentally retarded man at a Jesuit retreat for a period of several years.
Father Edward Thomas Burke sat motionless as Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Kevin J. Murphy told a hushed courtroom that the former high school teacher deserved to be punished for “inflicting severe emotional injury” on his victim, a 51-year-old former kitchen worker at the retreat.
Murphy alluded to the nationwide sexual abuse scandal dogging the Catholic Church, saying a lesser term of home detention recommended by a county probation officer would send the wrong message.
“This was not simply abuse by a caregiver. This was abuse by a friend,” Murphy said. “A parent figure and a spiritual counselor.”
The victim’s sister, Debra Sullivan, said she was relieved and happy that Burke would have to spend time in a prison cell. She had asked Murphy to incarcerate the retired Jesuit for three years.
“This is right. This is fair,” Sullivan said. “I’m so happy that I can go to my brother and tell him that there is a true consequence for what Father Burke did. That will be my happiest moment.”
Later, Sullivan said her brother was relieved to hear the news. “I’m glad he got nailed…. I’ll sleep in peace tonight,” he told her.
Burke becomes the fifth Jesuit in Northern California in recent years ordered to register as a sex offender for life. All five of the Jesuits have resided at Sacred Heart Jesuit Center in Los Gatos, a picturesque retreat nestled in the foothills above Santa Clara Valley.
Burke pleaded guilty May 23 to committing a lewd act on a dependent adult, a felony sex crime. The case came to the attention of law enforcement authorities in March after The Times reported that top Jesuit officials quietly relocated Burke in April 2000 after he admitted engaging in sexual misconduct. Instead of notifying authorities, the Jesuit leaders moved Burke to a residence on the campus of Santa Clara University.
At Friday’s hearing, the short, paunchy Jesuit appeared frail and slightly disoriented as he moved slowly in and out of the courtroom. Dressed in a faded yellow, short-sleeve sport shirt, light blue trousers and scruffy tan tennis shoes, Burke stared straight ahead without expression for most of the nearly four-hour hearing. Wearing black-rimmed glasses and a hearing aid, he did not speak in court.
After his sentence was announced, Burke was escorted gently by Santa Clara County sheriff’s deputies and booked into county jail. He will probably be taken by bus to a reception center at San Quentin Prison, where he will be evaluated by physicians and assigned to a facility that cares for aged inmates within the California prison system, said prosecutor Benjamin Field. Field had argued in court that Burke was better suited for state prison because the Santa Clara County Jail lacks special facilities for elderly inmates.
With credit for time served, Burke is expected to spend one year in prison.
Burke received a much harsher term than Charles Leonard Connor, also 80, a Jesuit brother who was sentenced to six months of home detention in January 2001 for molesting another mentally disabled man at Sacred Heart. Unlike Burke’s case, Connor’s received no publicity and was tried a year before the sexual abuse scandal made headlines around the country.
Field said the media attention in the Burke case “in no way affected our position on what the sentence should be.” He added that the Burke prosecution justified a tougher sentence because the former priest allegedly committed sodomy. Burke denied that he had engaged in any forced penetration with his victim.
Connor and Burke are among four Jesuits named in a lawsuit filed by attorneys on behalf of the two mentally disabled men who lived and worked as dishwashers at the Sacred Heart facility. The suit alleges that the two men were subjected to repeated acts of sodomy, molestation and false imprisonment for as long as 15 years. The victims are seeking more than $10 million in damages. Attorneys for the California Province of the Society of Jesus have been negotiating a financial settlement for more than a year.
Friday’s sentencing is expected to bolster the victims’ civil litigation, said attorneys representing the two men.
Burke’s attorneys appeared stunned by the sentence. The lawyers, J. Joseph Wall Jr. and Charles W. Hendrickson, had gambled that Murphy would grant Burke probation without any incarceration in exchange for submitting a guilty plea at the earliest possible moment in the legal proceeding. The lawyers had no comment.
During Friday’s hearing, the victim’s sister and a close friend delivered emotional testimony urging the judge to put Burke behind bars.
“If the sentence is a very light one, what kind of message would that send to other priests who are inclined toward these kind of corrupt acts?” asked Sullivan, holding back tears.
Holly Ilse, a Los Gatos dress shop owner who befriended the two mentally retarded men and pushed authorities to investigate the Jesuits on their behalf, said she was “in disbelief” when she heard the verdict. “Finally, after five years of hard work, somebody is going to be held accountable for these absolutely horrific crimes,” she said.
Defense testimony acknowledged that Burke had a parent-child relationship with his victim and took advantage of a vulnerable person.
“He described a situation that gradually evolved from hugging to grabbing [the victim] in the crotch area to masturbating the victim,” said psychiatrist Douglas M. Harper. He said Burke has a pacemaker, is on antidepressant medication, suffers from “overwhelming spiritual guilt” and was nearly suicidal earlier this year. He described the priest as “nervous, embarrassed, sad … and remorseful.”
Harper testified that he could not fathom how incarceration would benefit society or the victim. He said Burke posed no danger to his victim and there is “no possibility” that he would offend again.