Problem Priests Make Way to South Florida
By Peter Franceschina
At least 10 priests have come to South Florida with something in common besides their collars and their vows-- complaints of sexual misconduct that were kept secret from parishioners.
They came from Brooklyn, New Jersey, Orlando and Charlotte. Four came from the same diocese: Rockville Centre, in Long Island, N.Y.
[Photo captions: Rev. Thomas DeVita. Rev. Peter Duvelsdorf.]
"A lot of people come and go without too much notice."
A Sun-Sentinel examination shows that at least 10 priests accused of sexual misconduct, as identified by law-enforcement agencies, church records or their own admission, have tried to re-establish themselves in the Archdiocese of Miami or the Diocese of Palm Beach, an area from Key West to Vero Beach.
"Most priests are older, and Florida would be an attractive place for them to gravitate towards," said David Clohessy of St. Louis, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "There is such a crying need, a desperate need for priests, that many retired priests remain active."
Transferred priests typically are required to have a letter from their former bishop attesting to their good standing, yet that was frequently no safeguard in these priests finding new pulpits on which to hold Mass, charities at which to work or seminary classrooms in which to teach.
"Up until recently, they haven't meant anything. ... Sometimes they are plain lies," said Sipe, adding that the new dioceses often didn't conduct any background checks.
"It goes both ways. Even if there is an indication that the person has been in trouble, the receiving diocese doesn't investigate."
The Rev. Salvatore Miraglia, formerly of the Rockville Centre diocese, left Long Island in 1982, after a complaint that he asked teens to "disrobe," according to information sent to Nassau County authorities by the diocese, reported Newsday, a Long Island-based newspaper.
Miraglia has celebrated Mass at San Isidro Catholic Church in Pompano Beach, but a receptionist at the church said Tuesday evening that Miraglia no longer works there. Miraglia could not be located for comment.
The Rev. Thomas DeVita passed through the Palm Beach diocese from the same Rockville Centre diocese after undergoing counseling for a relationship with a teenage boy. A psychological report recommended that he continue in the ministry, according to Palm Beach church officials.
DeVita lasted five months before a new allegation made by an adult surfaced in October 1995, an allegation DeVita denied. He set off for Michigan, where he admitted his relationship with the boy to his congregation. He is still a parish priest there.
The Rev. Peter Duvelsdorf arrived in 1991 in the Palm Beach diocese with the blessing of his Rockville Centre bishop, even though he had been accused of molesting two brothers on Long Island. He ministered here for six years, until an arrest for public masturbation in a St. Lucie County park.
The Rev. Anthony Failla, kicked out of his Brooklyn diocese and ordered into counseling, came to the Palm Beach Diocese in December 2000 without a letter from his bishop. That didn't keep him from saying Mass and hearing confessions in Boca Raton for about a month. He was supposed to get the necessary paperwork but never did, and officials told him to go.
Since Palm Beach Diocese Bishop Anthony J. O'Connell resigned March 8 after a former seminary student accused him of sexual abuse 25 years ago, officials quietly moved to remove four priests from their positions, saying nothing publicly until reporters raised questions.
Msgr. William White's dismissal from St. Vincent De Paul Regional Seminary near Boynton Beach came five years after he first admitted to church officials that he fondled and made sexual advances to one of his former high school students. White had the approval of his Archdiocese of New York bishop, though he had been accused of sex abuse allegations in the 1970s.
Msgr. Philip Rigney had been performing Mass and other sacraments at St. Peter's in Jupiter since 1991, six years after he was accused of molesting two generations of boys in a New Jersey family.
Rigney, a retired priest from the Diocese of Camden, came with a letter from his bishop attesting to his fitness to serve. The family sued him in 1994, in a case that is still going on. Palm Beach officials forced his resignation when they learned of the suit.
In a decade with the Palm Beach Diocese, the Rev. Matthew Fitzgerald, 59, accumulated three accusations of improper behavior with adults between 1992 and 1997. The diocese stripped him of his priestly privileges this month after he tried to say public Mass and recruit people for a pilgrimage.
He was fired last week from Food for the Poor, a church-supported charity based in Deerfield Beach, because he needed his credentials in his fund-raising role.
He, too, came from the Rockville Centre diocese, in 1989, but officials here say they were told only that he needed to come south for his allergies. Newsday reported Tuesday he was accused in the mid-1980s of sexually molesting a teenager.
Another priest, the Rev. Richard Farwell, 54, was dismissed from Food for the Poor on the same day as Fitzgerald. Farwell came to the charity in August 2000 from Charlotte, N.C. This month that diocese stripped Farwell of his priestly privileges, Farwell told the charity's director, who fired him.
The Charlotte Observer reported Friday that Farwell's privileges were revoked for alleged sexual misconduct with a minor about 20 years ago, after the minor's family wrote a letter to the Charlotte diocese to make a second complaint against him. Under a new policy for addressing sexual misconduct allegations, Farwell was placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation.
Both Sipe and Clohessy say priests generally serve in the diocese where they are formally accepted by a bishop. If they are transferred, their affiliation usually remains with the original diocese.
"It is not like professional baseball. Sometimes, of course, there are perfectly legitimate reasons" for moving, like family or health considerations, Clohessy said. "Beyond that, there are the more nefarious reasons."
The transfers of abusive priest angers Stephen Brady, president of Roman Catholic Faithful, a conservative Illinois-based watchdog group.
"It seems to be just a widespread, common practice among many of the bishops," Brady said. "I am greatly offended about it, that's why for seven years we have been screaming about this -- priests being shuffled around and nothing being done about it."
Staff Writer John Holland contributed to this story.
Peter Franceschina can be reached at email@example.com or 561-832-2894.
PRIESTS WITH PROBLEMS
The Rev. Thomas DeVita: Served in the Rockville Centre Diocese in Long Island until 1994 when he moved to Venice. He served for five months at parishes in Royal Palm Beach and Wellington before being dismissed from the Diocese of Palm Beach in 1995 after an allegation of abuse of an adult. He moved to the Kalamazoo, Mich., Diocese, where he still serves. In 1998 he acknowledged sexual misconduct with a teen-age altar boy while in Rockville Centre.
The Rev. Peter Duvelsdorf: A member of the Rockville Centre Diocese who moved to five churches until 1978, when he was accused of fondling two brothers, Newsday reported. He arrived in Palm Beach County in 1991. For the following six years, he worked first at Holy Cross Church in Vero Beach and then at St. Paul of the Cross in North Palm Beach as an extern priest, a status given those visiting from another diocese. His career ended when he was arrested for masturbating in a St. Lucie County park. He was sentenced to probation and is now retired and living in a diocesan residence for retired priests in New York.
The Rev. Anthony Failla: Ordered by the Diocese of Brooklyn to stop working as a priest after being accused of inappropriately touching a teen-age boy, he surfaced in Boca Raton in December 2000. Failla offered Mass and heard confessions at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church for about a month until his past was discovered and he was let go.
The Rev. Richard Farwell: Came to Food for the Poor, a Deerfield Beach-based charity, from the Diocese of Charlotte, N.C., in 2000 with a letter of recommendation from the bishop there. He was fired on April 15 after Charlotte Diocese revoked his authority to perform as a priest as a result of a 1999 allegation of sexual misconduct that re-emerged, according to the Charlotte Observer. The allegation was originally considered not "credible," the paper reported.
The Rev. Matthew Fitzgerald: Came to the Diocese of Palm Beach from the Rockville Centre Diocese in 1989. Three allegations of inappro-priate behavior with adults emerged in 1992 and 1997, when he was given a leave of absence. He was forced to retire from the Palm Beach Diocese in 2000, then went to Food for the Poor and was fired April 15 after the Palm Beach Diocese rescinded his authority to act as a priest.
The Rev. Salvatore Miraglia: Left the Rockville Centre Diocese in 1982 and most recently served at San Isidro Church in Pompano Beach. A receptionist said Tuesday that Miraglia no longer works there. Newsday reported that law enforcement officials in Nassau County have been sent information by the Rockville Centre Diocese about an incident in which Miraglia allegedly asked teens to disrobe.
The Rev. Eamon O'Dowd: Left the Orlando Diocese in the 1980s. In 1983, he was accused of lewd assault on a 12-year-old girl. The Orlando Diocese paid $250,000 to the girl's family in 1986. He went to work at a parish in Winter Haven, then at St. Thomas More in Boynton Beach and finally Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Lantana. He retired in 1995.
Msgr. Philip Rigney: Retired as priest from the Diocese of Camden, N.J., in 1987, after being accused of molesting two generations of boys in one family. He came to the Palm Beach Diocese seeking work and ended up performing Mass and other sacraments at St. Peter's in Jupiter from 1991 until about a year ago, when he stopped working because of failing health. He was one of two dozen priests named in a 1994 New Jersey sex abuse lawsuit. The lawsuit remains unresolved.
Bishop J. Keith Symons: Arrived from the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee in 1990 to lead the Palm Beach Diocese as bishop. He left in 1998 after confessing to sexually molesting five boys 25 years earlier. He later retired.
Msgr. William White: After 12 years at Holy Family Catholic Church in New Rochelle, N.Y., part of the Archdiocese of New York, White moved to St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach in 1994. The Archdiocese of New York paid $100,000 in 1998 to a man who said White sexually abused him over three years in the 1970s. White was forced out of St. Vincent de Paul in March after a background check turned up a letter implying past troubles. He had said Mass at Delray Beach's St. Vincent Ferrer and other south Palm Beach County parishes.
[Staff Writer John Holland contributed to this story.]
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