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  Ex-Priest Romero Admits to Sexual Misconduct
Legal Documents Suggest Bishop Knew of Complaints against William Romero at Least Seven Years before His 2002 Suspension

By Alan Scher Zagier aszagier@naplesnews.com
Naples Daily News [Naples FL]
February 8, 2004

A former Naples priest facing three sex abuse lawsuits after resigning from the clergy last year has admitted to sexual misconduct with a Port St. Lucie teenager behavior he labels as "spontaneous moments of intimacy" intended to improve the troubled teen's mental health.

In a rambling, seven-page narrative filed late last year in response to one of the suits, William Romero acknowledges "a half dozen" incidents of mutual masturbation with one of three siblings he met while assigned to St. Christopher's Parish in Hobe Sound, a town on the Palm Beach-Martin County border.

Romero, who now lives in LaBelle, said the sexual encounters took place soon after he was transferred in 1982 to St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church in Moore Haven, a farming town on the banks of Lake Okeechobee.

The 66-year-old Romero, a former youth director and catechism teacher at St. Ann School in Naples in the 1975-76 school year, also details a three-year affair with the boy's mother. The divorced woman and the priest jointly purchased a timeshare in the Florida Keys for annual family vacations, Romero wrote in an Oct. 7, 2003, answer to a lawsuit filed in Miami.

Romero, who retired from the active clergy on a medical disability in 1995 but remained in good standing, left the priesthood in 2003 after a year-long diocese investigation of abuse allegations in Naples, Miami and Moore Haven.

He remains accused in civil court of molesting a 12-year-old St. Ann's student and raping a 10-year-old altar boy in Miami in 1975 and 1976. He is acting as his own attorney in each of the cases.

Lawyers in the three civil lawsuits are working to reconstruct Romero's background and determine how much church officials in Miami and Venice, including Bishop John Nevins, knew about his troubled past.

They can find some of the answers in Romero's own words.

Romero's self-described 10-year relationship with the Port St. Lucie youth, identified in the lawsuit only by his initials, D.M., went sour in the early 1990s, the ex-priest recounts.

"This is when (D.M.) approached the bishop (Nevins), and of course, I was called in for extensive questioning," Romero wrote. "I was then ordered by the chancery to attend several months of counseling until the psychologist released me.

"I was immediately removed from my parish assignment in Moore Haven and given a home to reside in LaBelle while I underwent counseling. Finally, at the recommendation of my cardiologist (Romero had previously suffered a heart attack), I was permitted to be discharged from public priestly duties and retired on disability."

Testifying under oath in another case, a top official in the Miami archdiocese said that his counterparts in the Venice diocese - which covers Catholic churches in 10 Southwest Florida counties, including Collier, Lee, Sarasota and Glades, where St. Joseph the Worker is located - were told of another abuse complaint against Romero in 1998.

Monsignor Tomas A. Marin, a priest and lawyer who, as chancellor for the Archdiocese of Miami, handles its sex abuse investigations, stated in a sworn deposition on Nov. 20, 2003, that an attorney representing the Diocese of Venice visited Romero five years earlier to discuss an abuse complaint.

Marin was testifying in a lawsuit against Romero, the Miami archdiocese and St. Augustine Catholic Church in Coral Gables.

Asked if she could corroborate Marin's account, a Diocese of Venice spokeswoman declined to discuss the matter.

"It would be inappropriate for me to comment on any matters that may be an issue in a pending lawsuit," spokeswoman Gail McGrath responded by e-mail.

As for Romero's assertion that Nevins knew about sex abuse complaints against the priest at least seven years before his 2002 suspension, McGrath again declined to comment. She also rejected a Daily News request to interview the diocesan leader.

"Any response from Bishop John J. Nevins and the diocese will be to the court and not to the media," McGrath wrote.

Romero's brushes with accusers began decades earlier.

By his own admission, he faced at least two previous accusations of sexual misconduct earlier in his career in Miami, where he was ordained in the mid-1960s. He also spoke of spending time at a Rhode Island treatment center for pedophile priests.

In a 2002 interview with the Daily News, he acknowledged being the subject of a paternity suit in a case he said was dropped when the girl who accused him gave birth to a black child. Romero is white.

In another case, while chaplain for Miami's juvenile court in the late 1960s, Romero was accused of attempted rape and stabbing a girl in the breast, he previously said. According to Romero, the girl's father admitted to the crime and was sent to prison.

The Moore Haven suit alleges that Romero encouraged the woman to break up her marriage and then exploited the new domestic arrangement for his own means. He is accused of taking weekly showers with the 9-year-old girl and regularly having sex with two of the girl's brothers, each of whose names are withheld and ages not included in the lawsuit.

According to the siblings' attorney, Jason Weisser, both of the brothers were also minors when the abuse began. It lasted for seven years, he said.

Despite the plaintiffs' request for anonymity in the Moore Haven case, Romero's legal response includes the first and last names of each of his alleged victims. The Daily News typically doesn't identify victims of sexual abuse without their consent.

At a press conference in August 2003, Weisser displayed seven photos depicting Romero and the children naked while on a week-long sailboat trip from Palm Beach to Miami. It was on this trip that his sexual abuse of the girl, now 11, commenced, Weisser said.

One of the photos shows a naked Romero cooking by a stove in the boat's galley. In another, he's floating nude on a raft. Three of the photos show the siblings doing mundane, day-to-day activities, but without clothing.

Weisser called Romero's legal filing the response of a "delusional and deeply disturbed" man.

"He tries to couch it in his terms, but he blatantly admits what was occurring," Weisser said. "He's simply in denial."

In addition to Romero, the lawsuit names as defendants the Archdiocese of Miami and its leader, Archbishop John Favarola; the Moore Haven church; and Nevins and the Diocese of Venice.

The Hobe Sound church, while now part of the Palm Beach diocese, at the time fell under the jurisdiction of the Miami archdiocese.

In his response to the lawsuit, Romero portrays a family with seven children that was torn apart by the father's excessive drinking and violent threats as well as drug use by the two oldest sons.

When one of the sons was sent to a psychiatric hospital in Fort Pierce, Romero convinced a West Palm Beach psychiatrist to intervene and treat the youth so he wouldn't be committed to another psychiatric hospital in Broward County.

As a condition, the teen - whom Romero described as an 18-year-old "in a catatonic state of health" and "completely incoherent" from smoking chemically-laced marijuana - would live with Romero in Moore Haven.

"He could not walk on his own without assistance, his hearing and eyesight were greatly impaired, he urinated blood often, vomiting was frequent and he could not keep food down," Romero wrote. "He needed assistance in dressing or undressing, TV watching was out of the question ... he had difficulty in speaking and couldn't read."

Before long, Romero's care had the boy "glued to me as a puppy to its owner." When Romero and his ward returned to Port St. Lucie for a weekend family visit, the boy's mother showed her appreciation by joining Romero in bed and initiating sex, he said.

"I was so overwhelmed with passion and completely lost any sense of my priestly vows of celibacy that I responded to her wish," Romero wrote, continuing that, "in the strictest sense one might say that (she) seduced me."

Romero's care of the woman's son escalated into discussions about sex after the boy "expressed a real phobia" about whether he was gay. When the teen demonstrated to Romero that he could get sexually aroused, the priest said he responded by blessing the youth's genitals.

"I told him that he was beginning to show some real signs of mental health progress," Romero said.

Serving as instructor, Romero taught the teen how to practice "sexual self-indulgence," according to the court filing. The young man's health steadily improved to the point that he could attend classes on his own at Indian River Community College, Romero wrote.

As a reward for "his successful recovery and academic achievement," Romero took the young man and his mother to Germany to visit a pair of exchange students who had lived with the priest while attending high school in Florida. The next year he and the young man went to Italy together.

Romero's involvement with the foreign exchange programs Youth for Understanding and Pacific Intercultural Exchange violated a Diocese of Venice policy prohibiting any unrelated person from living with a priest.

Nonetheless, Romero openly defied that prohibition.

As recently as last year, Romero continued to host foreign high school students at his LaBelle home - even after the California-based Pacific Intercultural cut ties with him in 2002 after learning of the multiple sex abuse investigations.

As many as seven international students, primarily from Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries, lived with Romero under Pacific Intercultural's sponsorship.

While with that exchange program, Romero not only worked as a host parent but also was a volunteer area representative, interviewing prospective parents in their homes to assess their fitness for duty.

According to two people previously affiliated with the Pacific Intercultural program in Hendry County, Romero was given the supervisory role even after diocese officials alerted the organization that the retired priest was breaking its rules.

Two such students from Germany told Weisser that they, too, were abused by Romero while living with him in Moore Haven, the attorney said.

Romero describes spending church money to care for the teen who lived with him in Glades County.

"To help justify spending some parish funds on caring for (D.M.), he was trained to be the parish bookkeeper, teach religious instructions to the children, assist at Sunday Mass in being a Eucharistic minister and Lector, and visit the infirm at home or in a nursing home," Romero wrote.

With Romero's help - and an assist from Nevins - the young man later entered the seminary.

"The bishop was fully aware of (his) background, my nursing and caring for him, and his gradual academic achievement," he wrote. "And so the bishop agreed to allow (D.M.) to attend a seminary associated with the University of Dallas (in) Texas."

In 1984, the Diocese of Venice was created out of the larger Miami archdiocese to address growth in Southwest Florida. Nevins, a priest and auxiliary bishop in Miami, was tapped to lead the new diocese.

It is unclear whether the young man who would go on to sue Romero entered the priesthood. Romero writes that he was assigned to Holy Trinity seminary in Dallas but "started to experience some emotional difficulties in his first year."

In contrast to his vivid accounts of sexual experimentation with D.M., Romero strenuously denies any sexual contact with D.M.'s brother and sister - although he acknowledges twice touching the young girl's clothed "breast area" while making the sign of the cross.

On the sailing trip, it was the girl "who kept pleading with me to allow her to go bear (sic) breasted," Romero wrote. He relented "one or two times."

And in the lawsuit involving the former St. Ann altar boy, now a 40-year-old married father living in Lee County, the man called Father Willie by his Naples students rejects the allegations of abuse.

"This is purely a case of ambulance chasing," Romero wrote in an Oct. 17, 2003, answer to a lawsuit filed by a defendant identified only as A.B.

Romero - who wrote that he is living on a meager pension and is too poor to hire an attorney - has yet to file a response to the third lawsuit, said Ron Weil, a Miami attorney representing the former Coral Gables altar boy.

In a brief telephone interview Friday, Romero declined to discuss his legal response. He denied knowledge of the 2002 diocese investigation and expressed surprise that his filing was available for scrutiny.

"Why is that a public record?" Romero asked.

 
 

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