Ensign P. recalls struggling during his third year at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. His mother was dying of an illness back home, and his grades dropped so low in 2004 he was put on academic probation. Raised a Roman Catholic, the 20-year-old cadet started counseling with a military chaplain, Navy Lt. Cmdr. John Thomas Mathew Lee. When Lee invited him to dinner off campus, Ensign P. thought it was an honor—officers don't usually socialize with Academy students. In fact, it was an ambush. Lee took the cadet to his apartment after dinner, poured him rounds of beer and Scotch, then began undoing the man's pants. Testifying softly in a military court earlier this month, Ensign P. said the chaplain engaged him in oral sex. Though he asked Lee to stop, for a few dreadful moments he felt too stunned to move: "This is a guy who knows all my darkest secrets."
More than 2,700 military chaplains minister to U.S. servicemen and cadets on bases around the world. Like that between psychologists and their patients, the dynamic between chaplains and the men and women they counsel tends to be marked by an imbalance of power. Chaplains often outrank the people who go to them for help and exert a spiritual authority that, as in Lee's case, can be exploited. During 11 years in the military, Lee sexually abused at least three men, according to his own admission (all three were identified in court only by their ranks and an initial). A judge at Marine Base Quantico in Virginia this month sentenced him to 12 years in prison and discharge without pay or benefits (under a plea agreement, he will serve only two years). In a disturbing twist, Lee is HIV-positive and admits to withholding that information even from men with whom he had consensual sex.
But while the vast majority of chaplains minister dutifully, Lee isn't the only sinner. According to court filings and an archive recently published by the group Bishop Accountability, up to 60 military chaplains have been convicted or at least are strongly suspected of committing sexual abuse over the past four decades, sometimes against the kids of military personnel. Their cases are a side act to the broader scandal of sex-abusing priests in the Catholic Church. But there may be a correlation. In a number of the cases reviewed by NEWSWEEK involving Catholic chaplains, complaints of sexual abuse were made to their churches well before they joined the military, but were never brought to the military's attention. "I've seen many instances where men were encouraged or allowed to go into the military and their own bishop did not disclose that they had something suspicious in their past," says Thomas Doyle, a Dominican priest and former Air Force chaplain.
Doyle might be the country's most knowledgeable source on the priest sex scandals. In the mid-1980s, he coauthored an internal report for the church on its molestation problem, and has since served as an expert witness in dozens of cases, including that of Michael Miglini of Dallas. Miglini describes being raped when he was just 14 by a military chaplain who had previously served as the pastor in his church and remained friends with the family. After getting therapy in college, Miglini brought a civil suit that was ultimately settled against the Dallas Diocese, the Military Vicariate and the chaplain. In the process, his lawyer uncovered complaints made against the chaplain by other church members that the military says it never saw.
For some victims, it can take years to realize they were exploited. Susan Loomans was a troubled cadet at the Air Force Academy in Colorado when she sought help from a Catholic chaplain. In their first session in 1985, he had her sit on his lap. (Loomans and Miglini are among only a few victims who talk publicly about their ordeals; most aren't named in court filings.) Within weeks, she says, he'd compelled her to engage in a sexual relationship that lasted nearly two years. Most of the time, Loomans thought what they were having was an illicit relationship. It wasn't until she returned to the Academy as faculty, and saw how vulnerable first-year cadets are, that she realized he'd manipulated the power differential.
So far, there's no suggestion that Lee, 42, engaged in sexual abuse before going on active duty in 1996. Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., where he served as an associate pastor, says no church would knowingly refer sexual abusers to the military. "Under the policies of virtually every diocese, they would have to attest that someone is in good standing and can serve as a priest," Gibbs tells NEWSWEEK. In court, Lee said little about his past but explained why one of his victims, Cpl. M., succumbed to his advances. "He felt intimidated by my rank and position," the chaplain said. But Cpl. M. also felt mad. Within weeks, he reported the incident to officers at Quantico, who carted Lee to jail.