An 81-year-old retired priest was sentenced to two years in prison on Friday for repeatedly molesting a retarded man at a Jesuit center in Los Gatos.
The Rev. Edward Thomas Burke became the first South Bay priest sentenced since a national sex abuse scandal enveloped the Roman Catholic church, and the sentence he received was more severe than the punishments given to three other Santa Clara County clerics whose past convictions have come to light.
Spectators gasped as Judge Kevin J. Murphy pronounced the sentence. Burke showed little reaction; white-haired and stooped, he was led away by his attorney, glancing up to smile at the bailiff as he left the courtroom.
“This was not simply abuse by a caregiver. It was abuse by a friend” who was also a spiritual and parental figure, Murphy said.
Holly Ilse, the Los Gatos dress shop owner whose friendship with the victim and with another kitchen worker at the facility led to the sex abuse investigation, fought back tears after the sentence was announced.
“If you’re going to sexually assault anybody, you’re going to be held accountable and you’re going to be put in prison,” she said. “It’s sad, but he created his own misery.”
However, the Rev. Thomas H. Smolich, the Jesuit order’s top official in the West, questioned whether the sentence was fair.
“What Father Burke did was wrong,” Smolich said. “I once again apologize to the victims, their guardians and friends. But sending an 81-year-old man to state prison is excessive. From what I understand, this is not consistent with sentencing patterns for a first-time offender and it’s a waste of taxpayer resources.”
In sentencing Burke, Murphy said he thought the priest was truly sorry for his crimes and no longer posed a danger to society. Burke uses a pacemaker to regulate his heartbeat and is being treated for several medical conditions.
Those factors, and the fact that he had no prior criminal record, argued against imposing the maximum sentence of three years in prison, Murphy said.
At the same time, the judge rejected a recommendation from the Santa Clara County probation department that Burke be spared prison time and placed on probation.
Murphy noted that the assaults took place over two and a half to three years, and that Burke showed a certain “criminal sophistication” in planning them.
“I suppose we’ll never know the reason why the defendant did what he did,” Murphy said.
Anxiety and fear
Whatever the reason, Murphy said, testimony at Friday’s hearing indicated that the result was “extreme emotional damage” for the victim, including anxiety and fear that he would be kicked out of the Sacred Heart Jesuit Center, where he had lived for 32 years and worked in the kitchen.
In Burke’s defense, several of his former students at Brophy Preparatory High School in Arizona wrote letters to the judge, describing him as a man whose wit, kindness and gift for friendship had a profound influence.
“I will pray for him as he so often has prayed for me and my family,” one man wrote, “and I will ask those that have a say in this sentencing to be gentle and understanding.”
The abuse at Sacred Heart involved two clergy members, Burke and Brother Charles Leonard Connor, and the two kitchen workers — the first known in court documents as James Doe, the second as John Doe. Each priest was accused of abusing one of the men.
The abuse was first reported to Jesuit officials there in 1995 by a financial guardian for John Doe. But supporters of the two workers said church officials were slow to act. A police investigation, prompted by Ilse, foundered when the two workers initially refused to talk to them.
Connor was not moved from Sacred Heart until John Doe decided to talk to police in spring 2000. Nine months later, Connor pleaded no contest to one felony count of committing lewd acts on a dependent adult, and was sentenced to six months of home detention.
Records show that Burke admitted in April 2000 that he had sexual contact with James Doe, and the priest was moved to Santa Clara University. He was not charged with a crime until abuse by priests started getting national attention. Burke was charged with felony lewd conduct last month, and pleaded guilty two weeks later.
His plea could give a boost to a $10 million civil lawsuit filed on behalf of both victims, alleging that Jesuit officials failed to protect the two men and were slow to notify police.
Thomas Plante, a Santa Clara University psychology professor who has written extensively on sexual abuse by Catholic priests, said he wondered whether Burke’s sentence would have been lighter before allegations of abuse by priests began commanding media attention.
“It’s a very interesting question,” Plante said. “We’re just in an environment where there’s a string-them-up mentality.”
However, Deputy District Attorney Benjamin Field, who prosecuted the case, said he doubted the church scandals were a factor in the sentencing decision.
“I think Judge Murphy is very independent of various scandals surrounding the church,” he said. “He made a decision based on the unique factors in this case. Years of sexual abuse of a developmentally disabled man — it’s very egregious conduct.”
Ilse said she is working to move the two men from the Jesuit center, where they live over a boiler room and continue to collect small paychecks, into an assisted-living retirement community in Los Gatos.
“Finally they can be like real people,” Ilse said. “They can have a real life.”