Altered Boy

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

Although our paths never crossed, John Starkey and I both attended St. Jerome's Catholic Church as children. I was a misfit parishioner, a kid with no keen spirituality who squirmed through weekly Mass and abandoned the church as a teen. Starkey was a committed Catholic; an altar boy involved in every aspect of his church; a deeply spiritual kid who planned to become a priest when he grew up. Until the night in 1986 when Starkey, then 14, was molested by his best friend, Father Joseph M. Lessard.

Until recently, Starkey had mostly kept mum about his abuse, preferring to put it behind him and get on with his life. But he became enraged when Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien admitted earlier this month that he'd concealed allegations of sexual abuse by priests in his diocese. In recent weeks, Starkey has become an ersatz activist against clergy abuse, leafleting St. Mary's Basilica and meeting with other victims to plan legal action.

We met one morning last week, the former altar boy and the former Catholic, and hunkered in a back pew at St. Jerome's, where Starkey discussed his shattered life and the since-defrocked priest who molested him.

New Times: You used to be an altar boy here.

John Starkey: Yeah. Everything pretty much looks the same as it did when I was here. I started going to St. Jerome's when I was about 5 years old, but I didn't become an altar boy until age 11.

NT: You're sort of the local poster boy for former victims of pedophilic priests. What happened to you?

Starkey: My parents invited Father Lessard over for dinner, and a friendship grew out of that. We were always together, like five out of seven days a week, usually at my house. We even joined a health club together. Every day he was buying me lunch at expensive restaurants. Then we started taking trips together. After a while, he was spending pretty much every waking moment with me. My parents didn't think there was anything strange about it.

NT: But it is kind of strange, a grown man spending all of his time with a young boy.

Starkey: Well, looking back on it, I see that now. My mother asked me once if Father Lessard ever said or did anything strange, and I didn't tell her about the time he asked me if I ever masturbated. I told him I never masturbated, but I was 12 years old at the time; of course I masturbated. I just wasn't going to tell a priest about it. He told me it was okay to do it, and that he did it, and if I ever wanted to talk about it with him, I could.

NT: That's pretty creepy.

Starkey: Yeah. After that, our trips started getting longer, where we would go for weekends and stay in hotels together. Nothing unusual happened the first couple of years, but one day we were swimming and he was grabbing my butt and other inappropriate stuff. Then it started happening more often, and it really made me feel uncomfortable. We stayed at a hotel once, and he told me it was haunted. I wanted to leave, but he just made me get into bed with him and he spooned me, you know, like a couple would do. I didn't realize this was abuse at the time.

NT: But it eventually got worse.

Starkey: Yeah. He and I were going to go to the Grand Canyon together, and he spent the night at my house the night before. He'd spent the night there lots of times, but he always slept on the couch. This time I'd gotten a new waterbed and I told him to come check it out. We were lying there talking about hypnotism, and he told me he could hypnotize me.

NT: The old hypnotism trick.

Starkey: Yeah. He had me count backwards, and he was touching different parts of my body and saying, "These are getting heavier," stuff like that. Then at some point I kind of blacked out, and don't remember what happened. When I came to, he, uh, basically had his face down on me and he was, uh . . . I'm sorry. Sometimes when I talk about this, the words don't come out.

NT: It's okay.

Starkey: Anyway, he was performing fellatio on me. And I felt pinned down. I tried to get up, but I couldn't.

NT: Right there in your own home. Your parents were there.

Starkey: They were in the next room. Finally he finished with me, and at that point I could get up and I did. I found my underwear and I told him I was going to the bathroom. I walked right into my parents' room and told them what had happened. "Mom, Dad, Father Joe is sucking on my dick." Those were my exact words. I was a little kid, I didn't know how else to express it.

NT: What did your parents do?

Starkey: Father Joe told my dad, "It must have been a dream, he must have been sleeping. I'm gonna go home, I'll come back tomorrow and we'll work this out." He left and we immediately called the police. They came over and took a police report. Ninety-nine percent of what I told them was true, but when they asked me if I ejaculated, I told them I hadn't. It was the most embarrassing thing in the world, so I lied about that part.

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.

NT: If Father Lessard were here right now, what would you tell him?

Starkey: I don't think I can talk about that right now. If he was here, I couldn't talk to him. I'm sorry. I wish I could, but I can't deal with that right now.

NT: That's okay. Do you ever think about how your life would be if you hadn't been molested by your priest?

Starkey: I'd probably be working as a full-time music minister for the Catholic Church. I was actually going to be a priest before all this occurred. Now I don't know what I'm going to do.

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