Abuse Complainant's Lawyer Blasts Church Leaders over Romero Defense
Miami Archdiocese Paying Bills of Former Naples Priest
By Alan Scher Zagier firstname.lastname@example.org
July 12, 2004
William Romero has admitted to sexual contact with a troubled teen. Facing multiple allegations of sex abuse, he resigned the priesthood under pressure from Catholic Church officials.
Despite that track record, Romero, 67, continues to receive a pension from the Diocese of Venice. And the Miami archdiocese - where Romero worked before joining parishes in Naples and several other South Florida communities - is paying for his legal defense in at least one of two pending lawsuits by purported abuse victims.
For Miami attorney Ron Weil, who represents a former altar boy suing Romero, the church's stance is a far cry from the earnest reforms American bishops vowed to enact two years ago amid a nationwide torrent of sex abuse complaints against Catholic priests.
"This isn't cleaning house," Weil said. "This is circling the wagons."
The issue of the ex-priest's legal defense emerged in a May deposition of Romero, who spent one year as a catechism teacher and youth director at the St. Ann Catholic School in Old Naples before leaving under a cloud of suspicion.
A former St. Ann student wound up suing Romero last year, alleging that as a 12-year-old he was fondled by the priest while in the shower at the church rectory. That case was settled out of court earlier this year for $135,000. Archdiocese leaders initiated the settlement.
In sworn testimony taken during the nearly six-hour deposition, Romero said he enlisted defense attorney C. Brooks Ricca Jr. of Palm Beach County through the intervention of another attorney, Owen Luckey Jr. of LaBelle, where Romero lives.
Both Ricca and Romero declined in the deposition to answer further questions by Weil about their relationship. The Palm Beach attorney reiterated that position in a later interview.
"I'm not at liberty to comment," said Ricca, who has also represented the Palm Beach diocese in priest sex abuse lawsuits. "I don't think that's material to what's going on in the lawsuit."
But a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Miami acknowledged that Romero's legal expenses are being paid for by his former employer.
"We have agreed to compensate Father Romero's attorney," said spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta, referring to Romero by his clerical title even though he resigned the priesthood in April 2003. "He was a priest of the archdiocese at the time" Weil's client was raped inside a church office as a 10-year-old, the client alleges.
The encounter between Romero and Weil's client, identified in court documents only as "A.B.," happened in 1975, just months before the priest was sent to Naples.
Weil, who has squared off against Ricca in other civil lawsuits by alleged victims of priest abuse, called the archdiocese's involvement an effort to "keep him (Romero) quiet." He noted that Romero initially planned to represent himself and didn't retain Ricca until recently.
"They're just trying to shut him up," he said. "It's not about transparency. It's all about a cover-up."
Weil suggested that Ricca's representation of Romero may fall under the category of soliciting clients, a practice prohibited under Florida's code of professional responsibility for attorneys. He plans to ask judge in the Romero lawsuit to further explore that issue.
Weil also criticized church officials for continuing to pay a pension to Romero, who retired from the active priesthood in 1995 on a medical disability but continued to serve as a fill-in priest until a 2002 suspension that preceded his resignation.
Church leaders countered that they are merely upholding their fiduciary and legal responsibility to a former employee.
"William Romero is getting a pension because he's legally entitled to," said Gail McGrath, spokeswoman for the Venice diocese, which represents Catholic churches in Collier, Lee, Sarasota and seven other Southwest Florida counties.
Given Romero's comments in another pending sex abuse lawsuit, the Miami archdiocese had reason to bring aboard hired help on his behalf.
Late last year, Romero filed a rambling, seven-page narrative in Miami-Dade Circuit Court in which he admitted to sexual misconduct with a Port St. Lucie teenager - behavior he labeled as "spontaneous moments of intimacy" intended to improve the boy's mental health.
The former priest described "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 line.
Romero 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. He also detailed a three-year affair with the boy's mother.
"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 also wrote that church officials in Venice - specifically, Bishop John Nevins - learned about his troubled past at least seven years before his suspension when the Port St. Lucie teen came forward.
Nevins told Romero to seek counseling and removed him from his parish assignment in Moore Haven, Romero wrote. Nevins, through his spokeswoman McGrath, has consistently declined to discuss the allegations against Romero.
A top official in the Miami archdiocese has also testified that the Venice diocese knew 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 last in the "A.B." case last year that an attorney representing the Diocese of Venice visited Romero five years earlier to discuss an abuse complaint.
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 after leaving Naples. Doctors there gave him a clean bill of health, Romero has said.
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