Altered Boy

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.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela