Priest sentenced in Costa Mesa

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(CNS) – A former Roman Catholic priest who pleaded guilty to molesting an altar boy in the 1990s at St. John the Baptist Church in Costa Mesa, was sentenced today to a year in jail.

Seventy-eight-year-old Denis Lyons — who left the priesthood in April 2004 — also was put on five years of formal probation. Orange County Superior Court Judge Francisco Briseno, who accepted the plea agreement the defendant reached with prosecutors, also ordered Lyons to complete 400 hours of community service and register for the rest of life as a sex offender.

As a registered sex offender, there is only one nonprofit organization Lyons can do his community service with, so if that falls through then he would pay a fine instead.

Briseno asked Lyons if he understood that if he violates any of the terms of probation then he may face up to 14 years in state prison. “Yes, your honor,” Lyons said.

Lyons may do his time behind bars in a city jail, but he must pay for it, Deputy District Attorney Heather Brown said.

Lyons would have to do 85 percent of the time under today’s laws, but it’s more likely he would only have to do half the time under laws in place at the time, Brown said.

A victim Lyons was not charged with molesting was willing to testify to corroborate the named victim’s testimony, but, like the named victim, he wanted to avoid a jury trial, Brown said. He came forward to allege that Lyons molested him when he was 13 to 17 years old, starting in 1979, but charges could not be filed because of the statute of limitations, she said.

Lyons pleaded guilty to engaging in masturbation with the victim twice in the parish rectory and twice in the church sacristy from 1992 to 1995, beginning when the boy was 9 and ending when he was 11, Brown said.

“Today is the day I finally have closure,” the victim said in a statement to the judge read by Brown in court today. The victim, who was athletic and religious as a child, said he developed a dependence on drugs and alcohol and lost his faith. “My life is a living hell because of this man,” he said. “He has lied time and time again and the Catholic church bailed him out every time.”

The victim quoted from a biblical passage and added, “This man is not a righteous man … This man is pure evil.” He said he forgave Lyons, but would not forget the pain of the sexual abuse.

The victim’s mother tearfully made a statement to the judge about how Lyons’ molestation of her son affected her family. “There are not enough words to describe the impact of his sex abuse on my son … and our family,” she said. “Denis Lyons has destroyed the spirit within my son and the man that God had called him to be.”

The victim was a “lovable, sensitive, caring fun-loving little boy,” who would “evangelize” as a child before he met Lyons, his mother said. “He would try any sport and excel from football to hockey to cycling,” she said.

“My son’s whole being changed because of the sex abuse committed on him by Denis Lyons,” she said. “He became sullen, bitter, resentful, angry, depressed, withdrawn, disrespectful of authority, stopped believing in himself. He lost his innocence. His grades went from A’s and B’s to D’s and mostly F’s. He has felt deep pain and shame.”

The victim’s mother recalled how she would hold her young son and pray that one day he would become a priest. He was deeply religious, but after the sex abuse his faith faded, she said. “My son has not stepped into a church for more than 10-plus years,” she said.

About four or five years ago, the victim was involved in a traffic accident and ended up in a hospital in critical condition, she said. “The doctor then told me his blood-alcohol level was off the charts,” she said, adding that two weeks later he told her of the sex abuse.

“He began sobbing uncontrollably,” she said. “Suddenly all things became clear — his change in behavior, demeanor, attitude, most especially the drug and alcohol use.”

The victim’s mother staged an intervention and convinced him to go into rehab, she said. Throughout the ordeal, the mother said she has continued her work with the church and that her faith has sustained her.

“I have been asked how I can continue to work for the church, let alone attend mass on Sundays,” she said. “I can stand here today and tell you the exact same thing that I have told those who asked me this question — that my faith is not based on the institution of the Diocese of Orange. It is based on God and his word. It has been my faith in him that has gotten me through those dark hours.”

She also said she has forgiven Lyons. “I had a choice — go the rest of my life with bitterness, anger, resentment and every other negative emotion or forgive Denis Lyons so that I could live my life according to God’s will, not mine,” she said. “Once I forgave I felt a very heavy burden lift off me. I felt free. I felt God’s presence.”

The other victim told the judge that he could not forgive Lyons, according to a statement Brown read in court today.

“I was an innocent 10-year-old child who just suffered the death of my father,” he said. “My mother thought that getting me involved with the church would help ease my pain. Unfortunately, there was an evil that no one could have ever seen coming. Shortly after becoming involved with the church, I became the victim of sexual abuse from a predator who falsely claimed to be a representative of God… I do not forgive, nor will I ever forget (the sexual abuse).”

Lyons was put on leave from the church in 2002 and charged in 2003 with molesting the boy, but he couldn’t be prosecuted because the case was too old, according to a Supreme Court ruling. The victim sued Lyons in 2008. The diocese settled the case for an undisclosed sum.

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