By Mark Michael

Gregory Lisby, a former Episcopal priest and kindergarten teacher who was convicted of downloading child pornography was sentenced to 6 years in federal prison on September 18. The enhanced sentence was handed down by US District Judge Timothy S. Hillman after a sexual encounter between Lisby and a teenage boy was revealed in oral argument. An unusual number of people filed letters of support for Lisby, urging the judge to exercise leniency and citing the former priest’s deeds of kindness.

Lisby, 41, pleaded guilty in February to a single count of possession of child pornography in February after federal investigators uncovered hundreds of images of children engaged in sexual acts in his online storage account. The images depicted, among other things, the “extreme abuse” of preschool-aged children. His lawyer, Timothy Watkins, claimed that the images had been downloaded in a single five-day span, during a depression caused by his removal as rector of All Saints in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Lisby was not charged with a crime related to the sexual encounter, because the boy had recently become 16, the age of consent in Massachusetts. He had also encouraged the boy to send him sexually explicit material. No explicit images of the boy were discovered, but Assistant U. S. Attorney Kristen Noto suggested that the exchange may have taken place via unrecorded internet live streams.

Watkins admitted the sexual activity between Lisby and the boy, but argued for leniency because the boy had lied abut his age in an online dating site. Judge Hillman responded that the boy appeared very young in interviews with federal investigators, and that he had told Lisby in chat exchanges that he needed to wait until his parents left home to continue a conversation.

In a February 21 pastoral letter, the Rt. Rev. Douglas Fisher of Western Massachusetts wrote, “We have also received devastating credible evidence that after he was ordained as a priest in 2007, Lisby sexually abused a teenager.” Fisher declined to reveal when the incident had taken place, citing the need to protect the victim’s privacy.

The Rev. Vicki Ix, the diocesan canon for communications, told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette that she could not confirm if the teenager discussed in the sentencing hearing was the same as the one Bishop Fisher had referenced in his letter. “The court has not shared with the diocese any information about the identity of the minor being discussed at Mr. Lisby’s sentencing hearing,” she wrote in an email. She also declined to say whether police have investigated the case mentioned in Bishop Fisher’s letter. Ix said that the diocese had received no additional allegations against Lisby, who has now been removed from the priesthood.

Officials from the Dioceses of Newark and Rhode Island, where he had formerly served, told reporters for the Telegram & Gazette that the incident discussed in the hearing did not take place in New Jersey or Rhode Island. A spokeswoman for Morgan Elementary School, where Lisby had worked as a kindergarten teacher, said that no concerns about Lisby’s actions there had emerged.

In 2018, Bishop Fisher had removed Lisby as rector of All Saints in Worcester because of an “inappropriate relationship with an adult that did not include sexual contact.” The diocese did not call for other potential victims to come forward then because there was no reason to suspect a pattern of sexual misconduct.

The bishop told TLC’s Jeff MacDonald, “When I suspended him, there was no evidence of something with children. That wasn’t on the radar screen at all,” Fisher said. “I was as shocked as anyone on September 13 when my phone literally blew up. It was the FBI having arrested him for child pornography.”

More than a dozen people filed letters of support for Lisby, including former clergy colleagues, parishioners, and members of his family. The diocese did not speak on his behalf, and one letter writer said that they were told it had treated him unfairly. Lisby’ mother expressed a hope that “he will find a way to move forward to continue to do good in this world,” while a former contractor who had worked with him at All Saints praised Lisby’s work feeding and housing Worcester’s homeless population. Judge Hillman said he has rarely” seen so many people express such “unqualified support” for the perpetrator of a crime like Lisby’s.

Lisby himself spoke at the hearing, apologizing to those he had harmed including the teenager, with whom, he said, he had engaged in “inappropriate behaviors.” He accepted responsibility for his actions, noted that his depression leads him to make bad choices, and promised to change.