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  Catholic Diocese Adopts New Policy on Sex Abuse Charges

By Alan Scher Zagier aszagier@naplesnews.com
Naples Daily News [Naples FL]
September 14, 2003

A year after the country's Roman Catholic bishops gathered in Dallas for a landmark meeting on the nationwide epidemic of sex abuse by priests, the church's Southwest Florida diocese has adopted a more stringent child-protection policy.

Central to the Diocese of Venice's "Policy for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults" is the addition of a victim assistance minister to counsel abuse victims. In the case of the Venice diocese, the new hire is Beverly Zeis, a registered nurse and pastoral minister.

The counseling role had previously been held by a case manager whose job also required him to investigate abuse complaints lodged against priests, volunteers and other diocese leaders.

"We want to distinguish the importance of having a person who is totally for the victim," said Terry Reilly, who as the diocese's case manager performed that function for the past eight years. Zeis couldn't be reached for comment.

In addition, the new policy:

1. limits the use of confidentiality agreements to settle abuse lawsuits "except for grave or substantial reasons brought forward by the victim-survivor";

2. strengthens the screening process for seminary students seeking to enter the priesthood by adding a full psychological profile and national criminal background check;

3. pledges the diocese's "cooperation" without elaborating on how that requirement would be met with law enforcement in abuse cases brought forward by victims who are now adults. State law only requires mandatory reports to police and child welfare agencies when the victim is a minor;

4. describes the diocese's "commitment to transparency and openness" when communicating the outcome and existence of sex abuse complaints.

Since last year, when abuse complaints in Boston opened the floodgates to thousands of similar charges across the country, the diocese has investigated three retired priests each of whom once worked in Collier County parishes on sex abuse charges. At least two other Catholic priests and one Episcopal priest who served in Lee and Collier counties were previously removed from the ministry for sexual misconduct.

One of the recently accused, Donald Baier, formerly of San Marco Catholic Church on Marco Island, was removed from active ministry in July 2002 once abuse charges were substantiated by the diocese, which covers Catholic churches in Lee, Collier, Sarasota and seven other Southwest Florida counties.

The misconduct took place in the 1970s while Baier worked in the St. Petersburg area, according to diocese officials.

William Romero, a priest and youth group leader at St. Ann Catholic School in Naples from 1975 to 1976, resigned from the clergy earlier this year while facing a year-long probe by the diocese.

Several former St. Ann students have accused Romero of sexual abuse that incorporated church rituals and sacraments, charges he has denied in previous interviews with the Daily News. He also faces two civil lawsuits in Miami that accuse him of raping a 10-year-old altar boy and molesting three siblings at a Moore Haven church.

Another retired priest remains under investigation pending the findings of an internal diocesan review board. The Rev. Neil Flemming was pastor at St. William Catholic Church in Naples from 1982 to 1991, working next at churches in Sarasota and Cape Coral before his 2000 retirement. Flemming was a friend and adviser to Venice Bishop John Nevins and worked as diocesan treasurer until his suspension.

The new policy, adopted this past summer, builds on an existing abuse prevention plan created in 1994 for the Venice diocese. With a new school year now under way, diocese officials are holding training sessions throughout the region to acquaint area teachers and church volunteers with the new rules.

On Thursday, Reilly shared the document with a group of 30 local Catholic educators at St. John Neumann Catholic School in Golden Gate. While the vast majority of the 90-minute presentation was turned over to Collier County child-safety advocates, participants left the meeting feeling positive about the diocese's renewed commitment.

"I feel there's an active response and responsibility," said Tony Landolfi, a St. John the Evangelist parishioner who doesn't work with children but showed up out of personal interest. "I think this is a very concentrated effort on the part of the church."

Jackie Stephens, executive director of the Child Protection Team of Collier County, said the diocese's recognition of a problem in its midst deserves credit.

"The diocese has really done a lot of (good) things for a long time," said Stephens, a presenter at the St. John Neumann meeting. "They've had a pretty progressive policy to prevent child abuse and neglect. . . They've worked hard to do what's right here in our community."

But for Ted Zelman, a Naples attorney who represents a former St. Ann student in a matter involving Romero, the diocese's response as well as the tougher stance taken by church leaders elsewhere is a case of too little, too late.

"This is an organization that's cloaked in secrecy," he said, referring to the Roman Catholic Church as a whole. "In general, they went a long time without acknowledging they had a problem."

To view the complete policy, visit the diocese's Web site at www.dioceseofvenice.org/specialissues/youthprotection.cfm.
 
 
 

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