Critics Blast Diocese for Reaction to Priest's Plea

By Steven G. Vegh
The Virginian-Pilot [Richmond VA]
January 15, 2004

Victims` advocates seethed Wednesday over the Catholic diocese`s response to a criminal plea agreement that allowed a priest to avoid trial on charges that he sexually abused two teenage boys in the 1970s.

The Rev. John E. Leonard had been charged with attempted forcible sodomy, forcible oral sodomy and abduction. On Tuesday, he offered an Alford plea that allowed a Goochland judge to convict him on two misdemeanor charges of assault and battery. Sentencing is set for March 30.

Leonard, 65, remains pastor at St. Michael`s Roman Catholic Church in Henrico County.

In a written response to the conviction, Bishop Emeritus Walter F. Sullivan said he was pleased the investigation was over and added, "It is significant that the court determined not to pursue charges of sexual abuse against Father Leonard."

Sullivan, who retired last fall as head of the Richmond diocese that includes South Hampton Roads, could not be reached for additional comment.

The Rev. Pasquale E. Apuzzo, spokesman for the diocese, said Sullivan`s statement referred to the U.S. Catholic bishops` guidelines for disciplining priests who admit to or are found guilty of child sex abuse.

Neither is the case with Leonard. But Candice Neenan, co-founder of a local chapter of Voice of the Faithful, a group formed in response to reports of sexual abuse in the clergy, asked, "Even if there wasn`t a sexual component, what about the assault on a child by a priest?"

She said Tuesday`s conviction was sufficient grounds for expelling Leonard.

"If he had any consideration for his flock, he would have resigned," she said.

Leonard made no mention of quitting in a letter he sent to his parishioners on Tuesday. The letter is posted on the St. Michael`s Web site. ( Leonard described his court plea and assault conviction as an act of self-sacrifice.

"In order to bring this most painful and difficult situation to an end once and for all, and to do so in a way that would best preserve the stability of St. Michael"s, I reluctantly decided to enter a plea agreement," Leonard wrote.

Leonard wrote that he accepted the agreement to avoid "a highly publicized trial" that "would have caused more pain and disruption."

He stressed that assault and battery "specifically does not include actions of sexual abuse" and that "this plea in no way constitutes a violation of nor grounds for dismissal" under the U.S. bishops` guidelines.

"I emphatically deny that these incidents ever occurred," Leonard wrote. "I realize I run the risk that some will see my decision as an admission that I did what was alleged. That is simply not the case."

Apuzzo said the diocesan board that reviews alleged abuse by clergy will examine Leonard`s plea agreement and a transcript of Tuesday`s court hearing.

The board will make a recommendation to Cardinal William H. Keeler, the interim administrator of the diocese, who will decide Leonard`s fate as a priest.

The diocese investigated abuse complaints against Leonard in 1996 and 2002. Sullivan cleared the priest of wrongdoing each time.

For the public, news accounts of the allegations against Leonard in May 2002 were the first indication that the Richmond diocese might get caught up in the Catholic sex abuse scandal that erupted in Boston in January 2002.

Since then, the diocese has expelled four priests whose history included incidents of sexual abuse.

Although Leonard was not convicted of sexual abuse, Goochland Commonwealth Attorney Edward K. Carpenter said Tuesday that he wanted the public to recognize "the sexual nature of the contact" that the priest had with victims interviewed by investigators.

Carpenter said he agreed to reduce the felony charges because some incidents had occurred so long ago that the statute of limitations for prosecution had expired. Additionally, one of the six men who said he was victimized by Leonard later admitted he had lied, Carpenter said.

There also were inconsistencies in some of the witnesses' statements.

After the hearing, Carpenter made public affidavits sworn by investigators who interviewed two men who said they were abused by the priest.

The alleged abuse took place when the men were students at St. John Vianney Seminary, a Catholic boys' boarding school in Goochland where Leonard was a faculty member until it closed in 1978. The affidavits accused Leonard of attempted sodomy and performing oral sex.

Leonard`s Alford plea is not an admission of guilt. By entering the plea, Leonard acknowledged that the evidence against him might be enough to win a conviction if the felony case went to trial.

Sullivan`s statement and the fact that Leonard is still active as a parish priest dismayed Annette Dickerson, an abuse victim advocate.

"The church has been given all the evidence; the church has no statute of limitations," said Dickerson, who founded the Hampton Roads chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "They have an obligation and responsibility to remove him from ministry."

Reach Steven G. Vegh at 446-2417 or


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