The Diocese of Phoenix quietly paid $45,000 to settle a sexual harassment claim in 1995 against one of its most prominent priests, who has since been promoted to second-in-command in the diocese to Bishop Thomas J. O’Brien.
Msgr. Dale Fushek, pastor of St. Timothy Catholic Community in Mesa and the founder of Life Teen, the largest Catholic teen ministry program in the country, told parishioners of the claim during Good Friday services last month.
Fushek and church officials insist that he did nothing wrong, and that the payment, made to a former employee of St. Timothy’s, was done simply to avoid the greater costs of fighting a lawsuit.
“Several years ago, I found myself in a situation where my own words and actions, which I considered to be words and actions of affection, were interpreted by an adult staff member as having sexual connotations,” Fushek said from the pulpit in a recording obtained by The Republic.
“This man complained about that to the diocese.”
Fushek told parishioners the matter was quickly resolved through the diocese.
“But this unfortunate experience in my life taught me many lessons, including the fact that I need to be more scrupulous in my dealings with others,” he added.
The man who claimed sexual harassment did not file a lawsuit. Mike Manning, a Phoenix attorney and Life Teen board member, said the claim was settled “for less than the cost of litigation.”
Fushek said he could not disclose the amount of the settlement, but a source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it was $45,000.
Fushek, 49, who has spent his entire career the Phoenix diocese, is considered one of the most charismatic clerics in the Valley and a prominent figure in the diocese. He coordinated the Phoenix visits of Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa and, by his own admission, has always kept a high profile.
Diocese officials said in a statement Thursday that the claim against Fushek did not include any allegation of criminal conduct or sexual contact.
“With respect to questions as to why Msgr. Fushek would be elevated to the title of Monsignor and named as a vicar . . . after such a settlement, any decision honoring or elevating a priest is always based on the complete record of his service to the Church, the Diocese and our parishes,” the statement said.
As vicar general, Fushek, is one of two priests in the Phoenix diocese with authority to stand in for O’Brien. He was named a vicar general in April 2000. Last February, Pope John Paul II made Fushek a monsignor, an honorary title given in recognition of his service and his accomplishments during 24 years as a priest.
Fushek’s elevation to vicar general and monsignor puts him on a career track to becoming a bishop.
Fushek, interviewed Thursday by The Republic in Manning’s office, said he revealed the claim to parishioners because it was mentioned in a Chandler police report regarding Mark Gherna, a former Life Teen volunteer at St. Timothy’s.
Gherna was sentenced this week to a year in prison after pleading guilty to three counts of sexual misconduct with a minor.
Fushek said he has been open with parishioners about the Gherna investigation and always tries to be honest with them.
But the sex-abuse scandal that has engulfed the church in recent months also influenced his decision to disclose the claim on Good Friday, he said. Meanwhile, the swirl of reports about priestly misconduct has only intensified.
Late last week, for example, Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland acknowledged his diocese paid $450,000 in 1998 to settle a claim that two decades ago he sexually assaulted a 30-year-old graduate student.
“I knew people would be looking for evidence of these kinds of things,” Fushek said Thursday. “I thought it would be best if (parishioners) heard it from me than from someone else.”
Fushek declined to detail the circumstances of the claim, but said he had done nothing wrong.
The diocese investigated the claim and determined it had no merit, Fushek said. But when the complainant insisted he was going to file a lawsuit, Fushek said he encouraged the diocese to settle.
“Part of me just wanted to get it over with.”
Fushek said he knows of no other complaint about his conduct.
His work with Life Teen has earned him international prominence and the admiration of Catholic leaders and laity who marvel at his ability to lead and inspire teenagers.
Life Teen masses at St. Timothy’s are a mix of music, laughter and a message that God is awesome, served up by a priest, often Fushek, with the sensibilities of a Letterman and the delivery of a Leno.
Traditional Catholics sometimes find his approach upsetting, but they can’t discount its success: The Life Teen model has made its way into 842 parishes in 11 countries in the 17 years since Fushek and two friends dreamed it up.
Nine Life Teen board members contacted by The Republic unanimously praised Fushek and said they will continue to give him their support.
“I am saddened by the timing of this story because right now, while there are priests who are certainly guilty as far as wrongdoing against others, Father Dale is in no way part of this media frenzy that’s occurred,” said Mary Jo West, a former Valley TV anchorwoman.
Johnny Basha Jr., senior vice president of Bashas’ Inc., said that he was saddened that someone as wonderful as Fushek would get caught up in the controversy over priest misconduct.
“(The settlement) did not change my opinion of the wonderful person that he is,” Basha said. “He’s a great religious leader.”
After the settlement, Fushek said he went through a psychological evaluation that helped him see himself more clearly.
“I learned that I have a much more dominant personality than I knew I had,” he said in the interview. “If I’m not really careful, people get intimidated and offended. I learned I have to be really careful in what I say and do because of my personality and my position.”
Relationships are difficult for anybody, said Fushek, but especially priests.
“You do want closeness and friendship and healthy intimacy,” he said, “and yet you have a vow or a promise to have clear boundaries in that.”
He said this experience has taught him that “you can be misunderstood and you can make mistakes. Like any Catholic, when you make a mistake you have the right to take it to God to ask for forgiveness and try to grow as a human being.”