Priest's Lawyers: Dismiss Lawsuit
Leonard's Counsel Says Statute of Limitations Has Expired in the Case
By Alberta Lindsey
September 30, 2004
Lawyers will be in Virginia Beach Circuit Court tomorrow arguing about the future of a lawsuit against a Catholic priest accused of sexually abusing a minor about 30 years ago.
Lawyers for the priest, the Rev. John E. Leonard, and the Catholic Diocese of Richmond have asked the court to dismiss the suit because the statute of limitations has expired.
Last October, William Bruce Jeter filed a $5.35 million lawsuit against Leonard. The suit alleged that Jeter was sexually abused and assaulted in the mid-1970s by the priest while Jeter was a student at St. John Vianney Seminary, a diocesan high school in Goochland County for boys planning to enter the priesthood. Leonard was on the school's faculty. The school closed in 1978.
Leaders of a national support group for victims of clergy molestation have called on the bishop of the Richmond diocese to withdraw the motion before tomorrow's 9:30 a.m. court hearing.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests asked the Most Rev. Francis X. DiLorenzo, bishop of the diocese since May, to respond "in a truly pastoral way" and to "stop playing legal hardball."
SNAP made the request Tuesday in a letter to DiLorenzo. The letter was signed by David Clohessy of St. Louis, the group's director, and Barbara Blaine of Chicago, president.
"We plead with you to act as Jesus would to this wounded courageous victim, Bruce Jeter," the letter stated. "Don't repeat the mistakes of the self-defeating hardball tactics employed by many of America's bishops. . . . If you feel you must fight, please fight fair, don't fight dirty. Please fight on the merits, not on technicalities."
Pastoral outreach is always available to Jeter, diocesan lawyer William F. Etherington said yesterday.
He added that Jeter first contacted the diocese in 1996 about the alleged abuse. "An investigation by the diocese didn't bear out what Mr. Jeter said. Mr. Jeter wrote again to the bishop in 1998 making a demand for money. [The Most Rev. Walter F. Sullivan, who retired as bishop last year] wrote back: 'We've investigated once and are not going to again.' Mr. Jeter made another complaint in 2002 and filed a suit in 2003," Etherington said.
Under a recent state law governing civil cases, the two-year statute of limitations for filing suits begins to run when a victim of child sexual assault gets therapy for the emotional harm.
Based on that law, Etherington said, the statute of limitations for Jeter to file suit ran out two years after he complained to the diocese in 1996.
Jeter's lawyer, Stephen C. Swain, said: "That pastoral outreach was always available is news to us and it's news to Mr. Jeter."
Leonard has been battling complaints from former students about sexual misconduct for more than two years.
In March, Goochland County Circuit Judge Timothy K. Sanner sentenced Leonard to two consecutive 12-month jail terms after the priest pleaded guilty in January to assault and battery against two teenage boys. The judge suspended both sentences and placed the priest on indefinite supervised probation. Under a plea agreement, two felony charges were reduced to assault and battery counts, and a third felony charge was dropped.
Two days after entering the guilty plea, Leonard resigned from active priestly ministry. He also resigned as pastor of St. Michael Catholic Church in Glen Allen, which he founded in 1991. Leonard's action came after Cardinal William Keeler, then apostolic administrator for the Diocese of Richmond, placed Leonard on administrative leave, which took away the right to perform any functions of a priest while the leave was in effect.
Keeler also called for an additional investigation of Leonard by the diocesan sexual-abuse review board. "It's my understanding that the case is still under consideration by the review board," Etherington said.
Complaints of sexual misconduct against Leonard began in May 2002, when three of the priest's former students told a Diocese of Richmond investigative team that he had engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior in the 1970s. Sullivan, then bishop of the diocese, placed Leonard on leave while the allegations were investigated.
In June 2002, against the recommendation of the diocesan sexual-review panel, Sullivan reinstated Leonard. At that time, Sullivan said removing Leonard from the ministry was unwarranted. Some members of the review panel resigned in protest, and the panel was replaced by a new board.
In August 2002, two of Leonard's former students filed complaints with the Goochland commonwealth attorney's office. Those complaints resulted in the March sentencing on the reduced misdemeanor charges.
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