The theft of $415,000 of student funds by the former principal of a Roman Catholic high school in South Jersey was called "indefensible" this morning by spokeswoman for the Diocese of Trenton.
Joseph Lemme, 51, said he embezzled the money from Holy Cross High School in Burlington County partly to get back at the church for sexual abuse he endured as a teenager at a New York State seminary.
An attorney for Joseph Lemme raised the alleged abuse in a plea for leniency at Lemme's sentencing in Superior Court last week.
"None of this has ever had anything to do with the Diocese of Trenton or any of its parishes or schools," said Rayanne Bennett, the spokeswoman for the diocese.
"We can only say that any victim of abuse anywhere is deserving of our compassion and our prayers," Bennett said. "What he is not entitled to, however, is the right to steal money from innocent families who had nothing to do with the abuse he suffered."
Lemme, principal at Holy Cross in Delran from 2002 to 2006, received a five-year prison term on Friday for stealing more than $415,000 collected for student trips, book sales and summer school tuition.
If accepted for an intensive early release program, Lemme could be out of prison in about six months. He was jailed last week after his sentencing.
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 Monday.
"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. Lemme's civil attorney for that case did not return a phone call seeking comment yesterday.
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."
At Holy Cross, Lemme admitted that he routed tuition payments, money from book and uniform sales and field trip money to his personal bank account. He was prosecuted in Monmouth County because that was the location of his bank.
Lemme also admitted to falsifying documents to appear that he had purchased school furniture and equipment with his personal credit card and then submitting them for reimbursement.
During his tenure, Holy Cross struggled with debt and dropping enrollment. The Diocese of Trenton considered closing the school in 2003.
The school turned around its fortunes and enrollment began to increase toward the end of Lemme's time, and he was praised for raising academic standards.
Lemme was well-liked and respected in the Holy Cross community, Bennett said. But the diocese discovered "financial irregularities" in a 2006 audit.
"News of his financial misconduct hit students, teachers and parents very hard," Bennett said.
Lemme was suspended that year and later fired.
"Some say he's as guilty as any other greedy embezzler," Pappa said. "He understands that. But he feels tremendous guilt and remorse and intends to pay it all back."