BY SAM WOOD OF THE INQUIRER The former principal of Burlington County’s only Catholic high school said he embezzled from the school partly to get back at the church for sexual abuse he endured as a teenage seminary student.An attorney for Joseph Lemme raised the alleged abuse in a plea for leniency at Lemme’s sentencing in Superior Court last week. Lemme, principal at Holy Cross High School from 2002 to 2006, received a five-year prison term on Friday for stealing more than $415,000 from the school, which struggled with declining enrollment and financial problems during Lemme’s tenure.
Lemme 51, of Wall Township in Monmouth County, plans to pay back the money he stole, and he “wants to tell the world he’s not a garden-variety embezzler,” his attorney, Michael Pappa, said yesterday. “It’s a horrible story, and there’s a lot to it,” Pappa said. “It’s more than just taking money out of greed.”
Lemme said he was abused while he was a 13-year-old student at a now-closed junior seminary in New York. In 2002, he and three other former students filed a civil suit alleging abuse there from 1969 to 1973, according to published reports. Pappa said that suit, which was filed in Westchester County, N.Y., was tossed out of court because the allegations were too old. But, Pappa said, the church paid Lemme $50,000 when the case was dismissed. “I call it hush money and a mercy payment,” he said. “In Joe’s eyes, they got away with it.”
He said Lemme had wanted to be a priest since he was 13 years old. But after he complained about abuse at the New York seminary, he was kicked out of the school. Although Lemme enrolled in another seminary and completed the program, he decided against taking his vows, Pappa said. He became a teacher instead.
Lemme was named principal at Holy Cross the same year he filed his lawsuit. Pappa said his family knew nothing about his allegations of abuse until then. “He felt the church had done him wrong,” Pappa said. “That’s why he started taking money.” MORE