Longform

Father Joe

Joe Lessard was already in his thirties when he started training to become a priest in the Phoenix diocese. He already had a master's degree in psychology and had been honorably discharged from the Marines after three years of service.

Other priests contacted by New Times say they remember nothing strange about Joe Lessard's behavior. But Perry Harper, the former diocesan administrator, recalls that there was something odd about Lessard. "As a deacon he was real strange," says Harper. "He had ten- to fourteen-year-olds in his room with him, only wore his underwear, that sort of stuff." Harper recalls he confronted Lessard about his behavior, but Lessard replied that Harper was "reading things into it."

In August 1985, Harper got a call from a couple who were old friends of his: The forty-year-old Lessard had molested their thirteen-year-old son. "I lost it," Harper says. "These were people I had known my whole life. . . . The boy couldn't even defend himself."

The boy's mother, Charlene Smith (not her real name), had always been suspicious of Father Joe's attention toward her thirteen-year-old son, Pete, court papers say. The priest visited their west-side home frequently, and whenever Pete came into the room Father Joe seemed to lose interest in the adults. Sometimes he took Pete on trips; the priest called the boy his "neatest and best driving companion." At least once Father Joe took Pete to a movie, and occasionally he spent the night on the Smiths' living room couch.

On the night of August 26, 1985, Father Joe said he wanted to sleep with Pete and try out his new waterbed. When police later asked Charlene Smith why she allowed the priest to sleep with her son in the first place, she explained: "You have to trust, you have to trust."

When Pete ran into his parents' room screaming that Father Joe had been doing "homosexual things" to him, the Smiths called police. Father Joe told the Smiths that the boy must have been dreaming--only later did he confess to performing oral sex on Pete.

Bishop O'Brien was questioned by police, according to court records. He said he knew about the incident but would not talk to authorities because the details had been related to him in a "confessional situation."

O'Brien immediately removed Father Joe from St. Jerome's Church, his assigned parish in northwest Phoenix, and sent him off to the Home in Jemez Springs. Few other priests in the parish knew what had happened. "Lessard disappeared off the face of the earth," recalls Harper. "He was gone. There was no notice in our newspaper he'd been transferred or anything else. He was gone. And he never came back."

At the Home, psychiatrist Jay Feierman diagnosed Father Joe as the type of pedophile who "on occasion will get involved with children" but is also attracted to adults. The doctor said the prognosis was good for Lessard "not ever getting involved with children" again.

Lessard's probation officer seemed more worried. Before sentencing in 1986, he wrote the court: "It is the opinion of this officer that the defendant has exhibited the characteristics of a classic pedophile. It appears that his social background is virtually totally male-oriented and that he has progressively focused his activities and associations on young children, especially adolescent boys.

"This officer is of the opinion that the defendant used his position as a priest to gain the confidence and trust of adolescent boys with the intent to seduce them and involve them in sexual acts which eventually resulted in the completion of the instant offense."

Father Joe faced up to twenty years in prison for one count of sexual conduct with a minor. O'Brien asked the court to give Father Joe a lenient sentence. He was being rehabilitated at the Home. He showed remorse. Monsignor James McFadden, the diocese chancellor at the time, noted that Lessard violated his trust as a priest. But McFadden promised the court that if leniency were granted, Father Joe would never again minister to children.

"I'm sorry for what I did," Lessard told the court. "I believe I have learned from my mistake and I want to be a productive member of society. I believe I have a lot to offer as a priest."

The Smiths did not push for prosecution. Monsignor McFadden tells New Times that the Smiths received "extensive counseling" from various priests. Eventually, Charlene Smith wrote the court in Father Joe's behalf: "We forgive Joe and love him. . . . I personally know he's capable of loving lots of people and doing the world such good. Any plea agreement or sentencing should now only be concerned with the quality of Joe's future. Please convey to Father Joe Lessard that we have forgiven him."

Charlene Smith added that her son didn't want to talk about the incident but that, concerning Father Joe, Pete "feels uppermost that he's lost a good friend."

Father Joe was not sent to jail. Superior Court Judge Michael Ryan allowed him to plead guilty to a lesser charge of aggravated assault, a misdemeanor. The reduced charge will be permanently wiped off Lessard's record if he successfully completes a three-year probation, which includes staying away from young boys.

After his counseling at the Home was finished, Father Joe transferred to the Midwest, where he is a priest-chaplain in a hospital. The diocese won't say where. "He's still a priest but not in contact with children, other than my guess is he'd see children in the hospital," Monsignor McFadden says.

When police asked her why she allowed Father Joe to sleep with her son, she explained: "You have to trust, you have to trust.

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Terry Greene