Altered Boy

John Starkey was planning to become a priest. Until he was molested by one.

NT: When did Lessard confess?

Starkey: He went directly from my house that night to Bishop O'Brien's and told him. The police went to the rectory later that same night and grabbed Father Joe, and he admitted everything.

NT: But Father Lessard spent only six hours in jail. He was charged with a felony, sexual misconduct with a minor, a dangerous crime against children. But in a plea agreement, his charge was reduced. Lessard got three years' probation and a $100 fine.

Starkey: That's because the bishop pleaded with the judge to reduce the charge to a misdemeanor. Everyone was saying, "This guy should be in prison, he shouldn't be around kids."

NT: Right. O'Brien reportedly wrote a personal letter to Judge Michael D. Ryan requesting leniency for Lessard because he felt Lessard had expressed "extreme remorse."

Starkey: Even though Joe admitted to everything, O'Brien attempted to hide it. The detectives tried to get O'Brien to tell them what Joe had told them, but he said he couldn't tell them because it was a priestly confession, and those are confidential.

NT: Why are you talking about this now?

Starkey: I couldn't hide it anymore. I started going to counseling that was paid for by the diocese, but they sent me to one of their counselors. He wouldn't talk about Father Joe, and when I told him that I wanted to address that, he told me we'd get to it. After four months we hadn't. He was asking me weird stuff, like how much money was in my bank account, and so I stopped going. I'm hoping to start counseling again, if the church will pay for it. I want to come to an understanding of why I'm 31 years old and I feel like a little kid half the time. I get like two hours of sleep a night.

NT: Are you talking about this now as a kind of revenge against the Catholic Church?

Starkey: Sometimes I just want to slam these guys, humiliate them. Every time I talk about it, though, I feel like I humiliate myself as well. I'm hoping if I talk about it, more people will come forward. A lot of people sign things and take money rather than telling their stories.

NT: Are you still Catholic?

Starkey: Yes. But I stopped going to church a couple of years ago. It's easier to just put it all behind you. I look back on the last 17 years of my life, and it's totally screwed up. My relationships, my finances, you name it. Dreams I've had all my life are so bad that I wake up physically hurting. I've been to job interviews where I literally come close to crying. I can't explain it. My self-esteem is so low that it's hard to put myself in front of somebody.

NT: What will it take to stop this kind of abuse?

Starkey: I don't know. I still think there's a lot of good left in the church, but not in the leaders of the church. O'Brien tried to resign, but the Pope wouldn't let him. He's either so ignorant he has no clue what's going on, or he knows and he's allowing it to continue. I think they'll just find new ways to do it, more creative ways to get around the parents knowing about it. I mean, they're still taking kids on weekend retreats.

NT: It's practically a tradition of Catholicism: the molestation of little boys.

Starkey: It's because the parishioners don't want to believe any of this. I was passing out leaflets over at St. Mary's Basilica on Sunday, and people were coming right out of church and making nasty comments to the victims who've suffered throughout their lives. I've heard priests say, "That's just the way it was 20 years ago," but there's never been a time in history when it's been okay for men to molest boys.

NT: Did O'Brien's admission that he covered up for local priests make you feel better about your situation?

Starkey: Actually, no. I don't think he's being honest about anything. I snuck into O'Brien's press conference, and listened to his statements, and it was the complete opposite of what Rick Romley said it was going to be. O'Brien completely backpedaled. What he did was walk all over the victims again. That day, it felt like I was victimized again. At that point, I knew I needed to go after O'Brien, so I started talking to as many people as I could about what happened to me. The guy needs to be in prison.

NT: What do you think of Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley's deal with O'Brien, granting him immunity if he admits to the cover-up?

Starkey: I think Romley got taken advantage of, and it made him look like a fool. I'd like to see O'Brien and every priest who's done this go to prison. Joe [Lessard] is living in Chandler, probably next to some family with little kids. They took him out of the priesthood, but he still gets paid by the Catholic Church. He's not a registered sex offender. As far as the law is concerned, he didn't do anything.

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