Ex-Naval Academy chaplain to plead guilty in sex abuse

The Baltimore Sun

A Roman Catholic priest and former chaplain at the Naval Academy who is HIV-positive is expected to plead guilty today to exploiting his position of authority to have sexual relations - both forced and consensual - with male service members, according to military officials and sources familiar with the case.

Lt. Cmdr. John Thomas Lee, 42, came into contact with some of his alleged victims, including gay midshipmen, after they were referred to him for counseling under the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy on homosexuality, sources said.

"He is deeply remorseful for his actions, both as a chaplain and as a naval officer," said Lee's attorney, David P. Sheldon, who said his client would plead guilty but declined to discuss details of the plea agreement.

Military officials offered little information yesterday about the case, the latest in a string of assault cases in recent years at the academy. They also declined to release charging documents outlining the time, place or nature of the allegations or any information on alleged victims.

But sources close to the case, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of its sensitive nature, said the allegations go back years. Lee served from 2003 to 2006 at the Naval Academy and for the past eight months at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va., where he is scheduled to appear today for a court-martial.

The career chaplain is charged with multiple counts of aggravated assault, indecent assault, fraternization, forcible and consensual sodomy, and conduct unbecoming an officer. The aggravated assault charge, sources said, stems from the fact that Lee did not disclose that he is infected with the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS. Military officials declined to say yesterday whether any of the alleged victims was infected.

Without the plea agreement, Lee could have been sentenced to life in prison if found guilty of the forcible sodomy charge alone. Under the military's sexual assault statute, force can be defined as the use of rank to pressure a subordinate into sex, but in at least one case, a source said, Lee is alleged to have used physical force or the threat of force.

Sheldon, a Washington lawyer who specializes in military cases, said his client has entered into a pretrial agreement that "substantially limits his exposure to confinement." He declined to discuss the details of the plea.

Lee was removed from military duties in June, when an investigation was triggered after one of the alleged victims in the case came forward, said Maj. Timothy Keefe, a Quantico spokesman.

Lee had served in a joint program of the Archdiocese of Washington, where he was ordained in 1993, and the Archdiocese for the Military Services, said Susan Gibbs, a Washington Archdiocese spokeswoman. For the past 11 years, Lee has been under the auspices of the military archdiocese, Gibbs said.

The military and Washington archdioceses suspended Lee in June after he notified them that Navy authorities were investigating him for alleged sexual misconduct, representatives from the archdioceses said yesterday.

Gibbs said officials at the Washington Archdiocese knew little about the allegations and did not see a need to go public with their knowledge of the investigation.

"There's the difference between allegations and charges," she said. "You'd have to know whether there's any basis for the allegation."

The Archdiocese for the Military Services was led from 1997 until Sept. 30 by Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien, who now leads the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

"When the Archdiocese for the Military Services became aware through Chaplain Lee that there was an accusation against him of immoral behavior with military personnel, we, along with the Archdiocese of Washington, removed his faculties immediately," O'Brien said in a statement last night. "We were not given any details of such accusations then or thereafter by military authorities in keeping with the privacy privilege strictly enforced by military law."

David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, questioned the decision not to go public with the allegations, calling the military a "predator's heaven." He said military chaplains exert influence both as priests and as military officers.

"And especially with relatively younger, newer recruits, miles away from home, perhaps for the first time; that's really a situation that's ripe for abuse," he said.

"It is never consensual or appropriate or healthy for a priest to have sex with a parishioner, or an officer with an enlisted person," Clohessy said. "By definition, the power imbalance is simply too great."

Reached by phone in Delaware, a woman who identified herself as Lee's mother said he was unavailable for comment. She called Lee a "great man."

"I cannot talk to you about it," said the woman, who declined to give her name. "I can't answer any of your questions. It's kind of hard for us right now, so we can't talk."

Lee lists his home in Phoenixville, Pa., a small town about 45 minutes northwest of Philadelphia. He was commissioned in the Navy in 1988 and served with Marine units from Camp Lejeune, N.C., and Camp Pendleton, Calif., military records show.

He also served with Navy forces in Italy and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He served as chaplain at the Naval Academy from September 2003 to October 2006, spent less than a month as a student in Newport, R.I., and arrived at Quantico in November 2006, the records show.

Lee, who attained the rank of lieutenant commander in 2001, has received four Navy Marine Corps Commendation Medals and a Navy Marine Corps Achievement Medal since 1996.

The allegations, first reported Tuesday night on the Navy Times Web site, come less than a month after a former Navy doctor was sentenced to nearly four years in prison for secretly recording midshipmen having sex in his Annapolis home.

In April, a former Navy football player was convicted of indecent assault and sentenced to two years in prison, and a star quarterback was expelled in February after being cleared of sexual assault charges but convicted of conduct unbecoming an officer in a January 2006 incident.

Academy officials, who declined to comment yesterday, have received widespread praise for their efforts to stamp out such impropriety, beefing up their curriculum on sexual offenses and encouraging victims to come forward.

josh.mitchell@baltsun.com bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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