Leonard Backers Question Removal
Supporters Maintain That St. Michael Priest Is Innocent of Assault

By Alberta Lindsey
Times-Dispatch [Richmond VA]
January 21, 2004

For two hours, parishioners at St. Michael Catholic Church vented their anger, raised questions about their parish's future and insisted that the Rev. John Leonard is innocent of wrongdoing.

Emotions ran high among the large group gathered at the Glen Allen church last night. At times, voices grew loud. Some people fought back tears as they spoke. Many recalled times when "Father John," as parishioners call him, had helped them through a crisis.

St. Michael members made it clear that they want Leonard back as their priest. They said there was a conspiracy against Leonard and that his accusers were lying. And they denounced the media, especially The Times-Dispatch and the Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk.

Responding to the questions and concerns of the parishioners were the Rev. Pat Apuzzo, diocesan spokesman and priest secretary to Bishop-emeritus Walter F. Sullivan of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, and the Rev. Mark Lane, a priest and counselor in the diocese.

Leonard resigned from priestly ministry and as pastor of St. Michael's last Thursday. His decision came after Cardinal William Keeler, apostolic administrator for the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, placed the priest on administrative leave.

Two days earlier, Leonard had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault against two teenage boys. He was originally charged in Goochland County Circuit Court with three felony sex offenses. Two of the felony charges were reduced to misdemeanor charges and the third was withdrawn under a plea agreement. He will be sentenced March 30.

The charges stemmed from complaints by two of Leonard's former students, who accused the priest of sexual misconduct about 30 years ago at St. John Vianney Seminary in Goochland. Leonard was a faculty member at the former all-male high school, which closed in 1978.

From the beginning, Leonard has denied the allegations of the former students.

St. Michael parishioners were not happy last night that Keeler and Sullivan were not present to answer their questions. They asked that the two visit the church.

One member accused Keeler of reacting to media pressure when he placed Leonard on administrative leave. "The media has been very harsh on Father John," she said. "We are angry that he has listened to the Virginian-Pilot and the Richmond Times-Dispatch."

As she spoke, the woman walked from her seat in the sanctuary to stand in front of Apuzzo, who assured the woman that the cardinal did not make decisions based on what appears in the press.

In response to questions, Apuzzo told parishioners that Leonard was receiving financial support from the diocese. "He's going to be taken care of. He's going to eat."

People wanted to know who their priest would be, a question that Apuzzo couldn't answer on the spot. "We have to find priests to come here for the weekends until we find a pastor. Someone needs to be appointed administrator of the parish," he said.

When Lane tried to bring the meeting to a close after an hour and a half, a parishioner called out: "We are not finished yet." Said another: "For a parish of over 1,500 families, one and a half hours to deal with something like this is ridiculous."

Apuzzo said: "I wish to hell we could take care of this in one and a half hours. But we can't. I would like for people to hang in there. Don't give up and don't make judgments about who did what and why."

As the meeting finally closed, a woman said: "I realize you got the brunt of our anger. I really appreciate you coming. Try to get the bishop to [personally] communicate with us. Then we can believe that the church really cares about our healing."

Contact Alberta Lindsey at (804) 649-6754 or