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  Sex Abuse Program Expanded
Diocese of Venice Drops Old One

By Joan D. Laguardia jlaguardia@news-press.com
News Press [Fort Myers FL]
October 26, 2003

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Venice has rolled out an expanded sex-abuse prevention program and dropped the one it used last year after nationwide revelations of priestly misconduct.

The new program continues education and prevention efforts aimed at parents, volunteers, children and employees — including priests.

Yet, while the diocese works to prevent new cases of abuse, some critics continue to knock its handling of old cases.

For example, it’s been 16 months since the diocese began its investigation of William Romero, a former diocesan priest being sued in three cases of alleged sex abuse.

The diocese has never publicly reported the status or findings of that investigation, even though it promised “transparency and openness” in communication when it updated guidelines for protecting children Oct. 14.

And, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP, has complained that Bishop John J. Nevins has not done enough to identify accused priests who retire to Southwest Florida from other dioceses.

“We are proactive,” said Terry Reilly, director of the new Safe Environment education and prevention program. “We were dealing with prevention for the last eight years.”

Updated policy

The program is designed to prevent abuse of children and to ensure that proper reporting of suspected abuse is done immediately, Reilly said.

He has presented it to about 400 people, including 263 who attended a session at Bishop Verot High School in Fort Myers in September. Saturday, the program was given in Spanish at Jesus the Worker Mission in Fort Myers.

Volunteers Ramon and Sandra Batista, who work with a Hispanic youth program at St. Andrews Church in Cape Coral, attended early programs.

Sandra Batista said the training includes being fingerprinted. She feels confident that Catholic children in school and club programs are safe.

“It’s really good,” she said.

The former education program, Protecting God’s Children, was designed by the diocese’s liability insurance company to reach employees, volunteers and parents. It was not renewed this year.

“We felt there was no place for us to go with that any further,” said Gail McGrath, spokeswoman for the diocese. “It fit our needs last year, for what we wanted to do last year. We wanted employees and parents to get into the mind of a sexual predator. It’s very chilling and eye-opening and disturbing.”

The new program is designed by the diocese with the help of the state’s Child Protection Teams.

“I am certainly encouraged to find that if they did cancel one program, they picked up on another,” said Peg Clark of Naples. “They have not abandoned the use of education for sex abuse.”

Clark is a volunteer with Voice of the Faithful of Southwest Florida. It is a chapter of the national organization formed to advocate a greater role for Catholic laity in the church after the sex abuse scandal of 2002.

Other critics, however, are less satisfied.

“These so-called reforms are very piecemeal and untested, and undertaken largely at the insistence of church insurance companies, PR people and defense lawyers,” said David Clohessy, SNAP national director.

Three priests and two laymen have been fired by the Diocese of Venice for sexual misconduct in its 18-year-history. All three priests were dismissed from the priesthood and were not reassigned.

The diocese has paid $1.5 million to settle civil cases with victims.

In addition, the diocese is now party to one of three lawsuits filed against Romero, a retired priest who left the priesthood and who now lives in LaBelle.

McGrath said the diocese has nothing more to report at this time.

The Diocese of Venice is a defendant in the suit in which two West Palm Beach area brothers and their sister claim Romero abused them while he had an affair with their mother. Romero worked at St. Christopher Church in Hobe Sound and St. Joseph the Worker in Moore Haven during the time, 1984-1990.

Romero denies all of those allegations.

LOCAL ABUSE CASES

There have been six abuse cases involving the Diocese of Venice in its 18-year-history.

• Charles M. Cikovic, a diocesan priest at St. Francis Church in Fort Myers, was convicted of three counts of sexual activity with a child and one count of lewd fondling in 1993. He served six months in the Lee County Jail and still owes $970 of $1,280 in fines and costs. His last known address was in Robertsville, Mo.

• Jeremiah Spillane, a priest of the Connecticut-based Legionnaires of Christ who was temporarily assigned to the Church of the Incarnation in Sarasota, was convicted of lewd behavior with a minor in 1997. He was arrested in a Tampa police sting of pedophiles using the Internet. He was jailed and released, and now lives in Sarasota. He is on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement list of convicted sex offenders. He had been working in Mexico before coming here.

• Edward McLoughlin, a diocesan priest at St. Charles Borromeo in Port Charlotte, was in Ireland when he was accused of sexual misconduct in 1996. He never returned to face charges. He remains in Ireland.

• Richard Trepinski, a part-time music minister at St. Charles Borromeo, director of the Charlotte County Boychoir and an employee of Charlotte County Schools, was sentenced in 1993 to 20 years in prison for molesting a 15-year-old boy. He already has been released. His last known address is in Fort Myers. He is also on the FDLE list.

• Timothy Brody, a lay music director at St. John the Evangelist in Naples, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for the sexual abuse of two teenage boys in 2000. He remains in jail.

• William Romero, who retired as a priest from the diocese in 1995, is accused of abusing a former altar boy while at St. Ann Catholic Church in Naples 28 years ago. The plaintiff, who still resides in Southwest Florida and who is now 39, sued Romero on Oct. 3. Romero also is being sued in two other civil cases from when he worked for the Archdiocese of Miami. Romero was released from the priesthood at his own request in December 2002.

 
 

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