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Life Teen Founder Busted

Monsignor Dale Fushek, once second-in-command of the Phoenix Diocese and founder of the nation's top church-based program for Catholic teenagers, has been arrested on 10 misdemeanor counts involving sexual misconduct with teenage boys and young men. The charges stem from the accounts of six men who all say they were...
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Monsignor Dale Fushek, once second-in-command of the Phoenix Diocese and founder of the nation's top church-based program for Catholic teenagers, has been arrested on 10 misdemeanor counts involving sexual misconduct with teenage boys and young men.

The charges stem from the accounts of six men who all say they were drawn into unwanted sexual situations by Fushek when they were involved with Fushek's Life Teen program at St. Timothy's Catholic Church in Mesa between 1985 and 1994.

The Maricopa County Attorney's five-page criminal complaint against Fushek reads like a Reader's Digest condensation of New Times' investigative piece "Cross to Bare," published last February. The cover story detailed the sometimes lurid life in the inner sanctum of the Life Teen program Fushek created at St. Tim's in the mid-1980s.

Four of the six men cited in the criminal complaint first spoke publicly for that story, which outlined what one victim called "Dale's tried-and-true method for getting teenage boys in bed with him."

The charges include five counts of contributing to the delinquency of minors, three counts of misdemeanor assault and two counts of indecent exposure.

"Acting in his capacity as a Catholic priest," the complaint reads, "Dale Joseph Fushek used a relationship of trust to perform criminal acts, including but not limited to sexual activities, improper sexual discussions and physical contact, upon vulnerable minor and adult victims."

The complaint states that in the mid-1980s, Fushek contributed to the delinquency of a minor, Marc Tropio, by engaging in discussions including "questions by defendant about Marc Tropio's masturbatory conduct and/or other sexual activities. At the time, Dale Joseph Fushek misrepresented them as part of the Catholic sacrament of confession. The physical contacts included defendant inviting Marc Tropio into his bed then engaging in kissing and snuggling. Said contact was unwelcome by Marc Tropio."

The five other victims describe a similar pattern of conduct, one that began with Fushek engaging certain teenage boys in his parish in explicit sexual discussions that eventually led to what victims perceived as unwanted sexual advances by the priest.

Through his attorney, Mike Manning, Fushek denies any inappropriate contact with any of the six alleged victims.

In a January discussion with New Times, Paul Pfaffenberger, leader of the Arizona chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, summed up the coming story and criminal complaints.

"We're beginning to hear this same story again and again," Pfaffenberger said. "That there was unwanted sexual contact by Dale Fushek, and that it came about through this very manipulative grooming process associated with Life Teen. There is definitely a pattern of behavior beginning to form."

Prosecutors have not finished their investigation of Fushek, says Barnett Lotstein, special assistant county attorney. The misdemeanor charges needed to be filed now, he said, to avoid problems with the one-year statute of limitations on the misdemeanors.

"There may be more charges in the future," he said.

There are essentially two tiers of allegations against Fushek -- soft-core and hard-core.

At the time of the New Times story, the amount of evidence supporting the misdemeanor charges was much greater than evidence supporting felony charges.

The six men accusing Fushek in the misdemeanor complaints are all credible witnesses, mostly men in their 30s with families and professional careers and little to gain except embarrassment from coming forward with their stories.

Most didn't know each other before this year, and all tell chillingly similar stories. Most have friends or family members who can substantiate their versions of events.

At the same time, however, none claims that Fushek ever forced the physical relationship beyond inappropriate discussions, creepy canoodling and his own nudity.

The county attorney investigation began, however, because of much more serious charges in a lawsuit filed in January by a former Life Teen member named Billy Cesolini.

Cesolini claims to have recovered memories of convicted pedophile Mark Lehman performing oral sex on him in 1985 at the rectory at St. Tim's while a fellow priest, Fushek, watched and masturbated. Cesolini was 14 at the time.

Manning, Fushek's attorney, called Cesolini "delusional" and his claims "laughable."

Prosecutors have been tight-lipped about the ongoing investigation of those considerably more serious charges.

The strength of felony criminal charges likely would hinge on testimony from Mark Lehman.

Lehman spent 10 years in prison for sexually assaulting several children in the late 1980s. He might have served more time if not for a letter to the judge by Dale Fushek asking for leniency.

Lehman could not be reached for comment for this story. In February, however, when reached at his central Phoenix home, Lehman said he could not speak on advice from his attorney.

"I would very much like to tell the whole story to you," he said then. "But the way the world is, I've been told I can't."

At the time, New Times learned of two other former priests who had claimed to have witnessed alleged assaults by Fushek. New Times failed to locate those two priests. It is unknown if county prosecutors have interviewed these men in relation to more serious charges.

Bishop Thomas Olmsted suspended Fushek from public duties last December, when Cesolini and his attorney first approached the diocese. Six months later, Fushek resigned under pressure as pastor at St. Tim's.

Fushek's star first began to fade with the fall of his mentor, former bishop Thomas O'Brien, who, after a series of New Times stories and another investigation by then-County Attorney Rick Romley, signed an agreement granting him immunity from criminal charges if he would take a reduced role in the church and admit that he allowed priests accused of sexual misconduct to continue working with minors. He also admitted to transferring problem priests to new parishes without alerting parishioners about the priests' past. In several cases, priests accused of sexual contact with a minor at one parish allegedly continued abusing children at successive parishes.

After signing the agreement, O'Brien then began stating that he had not actually agreed to the seemingly apparent terms of the agreement. That debate was quickly silenced when O'Brien was arrested in a hit-and-run incident that left a man dead. O'Brien resigned as bishop and was later convicted of the crime.

Deputy county attorney Barbara Marshall asked that Fushek be held on $50,000 bond because, she said, "based on past experience with similar defendants, we feel that flight is a serious risk."

Indeed. Besides O'Brien's run from the scene of a fatal accident, three Valley priests -- Patrick Colleary, Joseph Henn and Joseph Briceno -- have left the country and refused to return to face charges.

Instead of bond, however, Maricopa County Commissioner Barbara Hamner had Fushek placed under house arrest at his home where he will wear a bracelet monitoring his whereabouts. He was also ordered to surrender his passport.

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