Game over for priest who spent radio contest behind bars

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 February, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 February, 2002, 12:00am

A Catholic priest who won a radio competition where he spent three weeks in prison with a strip club manager, read out extracts from Penthouse magazine and received a visit from a violent criminal, has been suspended from his post.

As part of the contest, Father Kevin Lee, 37, was locked in a cell at a former prison in Melbourne for three weeks, along with seven other contestants who were made to perform various stunts on live radio. The group was filmed 24 hours a day by cameras linked to the Internet and viewers voted for their favourite participant.

Father Lee proved so popular with listeners on the Triple M radio station that he won the competition, donating his A$20,000 (HK$80,000) prize money to a hostel for homeless men in Sydney. He also won a car, which he kept. But many of his older parishioners were offended by his spell behind bars , and on returning to his church in Baulkham Hills, in Sydney, he was suspended for six months. Father Lee defended his time as a jail bird and said the publicity stunt did the Catholic Church good and increased the size of his flock.

'I entered because I am a Catholic person and I thought it would be good exposure for the church to be in a commercial radio station spotlight,' he said. 'In the course of the three weeks I even converted the strip club manager, who was recently baptised. There were a lot more younger people coming to Mass when I came home - the population of our church increased dramatically.'

At the start of their self-imposed jail sentence, the contestants were stripped, showered and had their heads shaved. They were then paired off and locked in unheated cells. They accrued points by carrying out tasks ranging from scrubbing the prison's exercise yard with toothbrushes to having their eyebrows removed with wax strips.

An actor playing the part of prison warder barked commands and treated them like real criminals. While seven of the group were made to memorise a passage from the Bible and read it out on radio, Father Lee had to recite an advertisement for a potency treatment called Horny Devil Weed from the pages of Penthouse magazine.

In an echo of the film Cool Hand Luke, starring Paul Newman, there was also a competition to see who could eat the most boiled eggs. Father Lee won, consuming 25 in an hour.

One of the more controversial elements of the contest entailed a visit to the prison by Mark 'Chopper' Reid, a convicted criminal whose violent exploits were last year made into a film. Two of the female contestants had to spend a night locked in a cell with him.

Father Lee is now looking for a new parish and has been banned from performing any of his usual duties, including weddings and other church services.

He said he only entered the competition after securing the blessing of the local bishop, Kevin Manning, who he said approved of his involvement and even tuned in occasionally.