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Navy Chaplain Faces Court Martial for Gay Sexual Assaults

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday December 6, 2007

A HIV-positive priest and former Navy chaplain has been charged with sexually assaulting midshipmen, including men sent to him for counseling as part of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ban on openly gay servicemembers.

The Baltimore Sun reported on the story today, saying that Lt. Cmdr. John Thomas Lee, who is a Roman Catholic priest, was expected to plead guilty today to the charges as part of a plea agreement.

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.

Sources said that allegations concern abuse had existed for years, but only now is Lee coming to trial for the alleged crimes.

Lee was scheduled to be court martialed today.

Said Lee's lawyer, David Sheldon, "He is deeply remorseful for his actions, both as a chaplain and as a naval officer," the Sun reported.

Lee stands accused of an array of offenses, including aggravated assault, indecent assault, forcible sodomy, consensual sodomy, fraternization, and conduct unbecoming of an officer.

The assault charges were upgraded to aggravated assault due to Lee's HIV positive status, though authorities would not say whether any of the alleged victims were known to have been infected with HIV through contact with Lee, the Sun reported.

The article also said that the plea bargain could save Lee from life imprisonment, which might have resulted from the count of forcible sodomy in itself.

Lee is alleged to have forced at least one purported victim to submit through force or threats, but use of superior rank to pressure a victim is also grounds for the charge.

Though details were not provided by Sheldon, the lawyer did say that Lee had forged an agreement that "substantially limits his exposure to confinement," the Sun story said.

Lee was taken off active duty last June after an alleged victim reported abuse at Lee's hands, according to Quantico spokesman Maj. Timothy Keefe. Lee was also suspended at that time by the military archdiocese, as well as the Washington archdiocese, which acted after Lee reported that the Navy was looking into the allegations against him, the Sun reported.

Washington Archdiocese spokeswoman Susan Gibbs said that the archdioceses did not make any public announcement at that time because "There's the difference between allegations and charges."

Continued Gibbs, "You'd have to know whether there's any basis for the allegation."

That decision was greeted with skepticism by the director of the Survivors network of those Abused by Preists, David Clohessy, the article said.

Clohessy cited the combination of rank and clerical position in saying that the military is "predator's heaven."

"[E]specially with relatively younger, newer recruits, miles away from home, perhaps for the first time," said Clohessy; "that's really a situation that's ripe for abuse."

Clohessy continued, "It is never consensual or appropriate or healthy for a priest to have sex with a parishioner, or an officer with an enlisted person."

Continued Clohessy, "By definition, the power imbalance is simply too great," the Sun story reported.

Records show that Lee's decorations include four Navy Marine Corps Commendation Medals and a Navy Marine Corps Achievement Medal, awarded him over the last 11 years.

The Sun provided a thumbnail of other recent offenses involving Naval personnel, including a Navy football player sentenced to two years for indecent assault and a former Navy physician receiving a four-year sentence for making a secret recording of two midshipmens' sexual encounter in the doctor's home.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.