Cross to Bare

Monsignor Dale Fushek had long been the rock star of the Catholic Church in the United States.

He founded America's largest program for Catholic teenagers, Life Teen, at his parish in the East Valley in 1985. Today, about 100,000 high-school-age Catholics across the country attend his program each week.

As the flamboyant, charismatic leader of that program, Fushek reigned as the de facto spokesman for the country's Catholic youth. He is credited with bringing America's young Catholics back to the church by energizing, personalizing and modernizing church doctrine. He also is credited with bringing Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa to the Valley.

During the pope's visits to Tempe in 1987 and to St. Louis in 1999, Fushek organized and led major youth events associated with the trips, essentially serving as the ambassador to John Paul II and the national media for America's next generation of Catholics.

Fushek, not long ago second in command to former bishop Thomas O'Brien, also was arguably the most powerful, popular and financially connected priest in Arizona.

He was so connected, for example, that he both successfully solicited massive donations from Charles Keating and later became close friends with the man credited with dismantling Keating's crooked savings-and-loan empire, local attorney Mike Manning.

But, for two decades, there also have been whispers.

Fellow priests used to joke that Fushek created Life Teen to "get teens."

A mounting number of former Life Teen members and church employees lately are saying that wasn't a joke.

New Times interviewed several former employees, co-workers, fellow priests and students of Fushek's, some in exclusive interviews within days of their giving sworn statements to investigators for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office regarding the monsignor.

Together, their stories depict a spiritual leader with a chillingly calculated pattern of recruitment and seduction of teenage boys spanning at least a decade.

"Dale is a master at normalizing deviant behavior," says one of his alleged victims, who has spoken to the County Attorney's Office in its month-old investigation of Fushek.

"What kills me is thinking about how many kids out there he affected who are afraid to talk," says Mark Olsen, a Life Teen member in the late 1980s and now a businessman in Mesa. "Dale scared me away from religion at a critical time in my life. Who else has he done this to?"

Fushek was placed on administrative leave by Bishop Thomas Olmsted in late December after Olmsted was notified that Fushek was accused in a lawsuit of masturbating while watching a sexual assault on William Cesolini, then 14, by convicted child molester Mark Lehman, who served under Fushek at St. Timothy Catholic Church in Mesa for two months in the 1980s.

Olmsted then notified the County Attorney's Office, which opened an investigation of the activities of Fushek and his top assistant, Phil Baniewicz, whom Cesolini says in the suit looked on as he was sexually accosted by Lehman.

Through his attorney, Manning, Fushek denies that he ever inappropriately touched teenagers or subordinates, or witnessed any sexual assault by others. Baniewicz also denies the claims.

Lehman, confronted at his home with the allegations, declined to comment.

Manning, the longtime friend of Fushek's and a board member of Life Teen since the mid-1990s, went further regarding the Cesolini complaint.

"Cesolini is delusional," says Manning, who also is representing Baniewicz.

"Frankly, regarding Life Teen, the real story is that, even with hundreds of thousands of teens involved in such an emotionally charged environment, there has never been a single complaint filed by a teen against a priest," Manning says.

He's saying there's been no complaint against a priest by a teen in the 842 parishes worldwide where the program is used. Cesolini, who was a teen when he was allegedly assaulted, waited until he was an adult to complain.

At St. Tim's, the dearth of complaints by teens, Fushek's accusers say, had more to do with fear of retaliation than lack of abuse.

And to imply there were never sexual indiscretions surrounding Fushek and his program is a profound case of mincing words.

For one, Fushek has worked with, lived with and mentored a who's-who of priests accused or convicted of preying on children.

Besides Mark Lehman, who spent 10 years in prison for molesting children, there was Father Patrick Colleary, who is awaiting extradition from Ireland on two counts of felony sexual conduct with a minor, and Joseph Lessard, who served three years' probation for a 1985 molestation conviction. All lived with and worked closely with Fushek at either St. Tim's or at his earlier post at St. Jerome's in Phoenix.

In 2002, a Life Teen volunteer and former Life Teen employee at St. Tim's, Mark Gherna, was sentenced to a year in prison on three counts of sexual misconduct with a minor.

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Robert Nelson