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  Former St. Ann Priest Interviewed on Videotape

By Janine A. Zeitlin
Naples Daily News [Naples FL]
May 2, 2005

His face crumples in a frown and his neck twitches when pelted with questions probing three decades of accusations of a stabbing, sodomy, abuse of power and fathering a child.

"Damns" and "hells" punctuate terse answers from the ex-Naples priest the Catholic Church trusted with the great responsibility of spiritually guiding the faithful, including children.

Those who alleged abuse during William Romero's 1975-76 tenure at St. Ann school and church in Naples say Archdiocese of Miami leaders vowed to bar the now 68-year-old priest from contact with children.

Instead, South Florida church hierarchy shifted Romero from parish to parish where he dealt closely with vulnerable teens and children, his accusers and their lawyers say.

The allegations persisted.

Miami attorney Ron Weil deposed Romero, now living in LaBelle, for two days in 2004 for a trial of his client who alleges Romero sexually abused him as a 10-year-old Coral Gables altar boy in 1975.

The former priest denies knowing Weil's client.

It is the sole pending lawsuit of five lodged against Romero. The other suits — three of which involved St. Ann youth — have been settled out of court.

A Miami-Dade circuit judge recently delayed the trial to August to give the Venice Diocese time to turn over Romero's personnel files and Weil time to review them, the lawyer said. The trial was originally scheduled for mid-April.

The Venice Diocese — including Catholic churches in Collier, Lee and seven other Southwest Florida counties — had sought to block the attorney from getting the records. Prior to 1984, the Miami Archdiocese covered Collier County.

In 12 hours of videotaped interviews reviewed by the Naples Daily News, Romero often appears tense, agitated and confused. The former priest's dark hair is flecked gray and his arms are blotched with age spots.

He smacks gum. He licks his lips. He fumbles over words and raises his voice while unclogging his memory.

At one point, his eyes dart behind glasses tottering on his nose as lawyers bicker before slamming his hands on the table and storming out of the meeting room.

Presented with photos of himself naked on a life raft on his sailboat, Romero pitches them across the table.

"Get that out of my face," Romero hisses. "Can I tear those up?"

"Why would you have been undressed in the presence of children, sir?" Weil asks.

"I don't know what children were there," responds Romero, whose accent is more New York than South Florida. "All I know is there were times when we were out in the water like that and it's hot as blazes and we'd go skinny-dipping, fine. I don't see what's wrong with that."

He was only naked in front of children of one family — the family of a Port St. Lucie teenager he masturbated with a half-dozen times in the early 1980s while a priest in Moore Haven — and not during 20 overnight boat trips he hosted for Catholic youth as a priest, he says.

There was also a three-year sexual affair with the teenager's mother and, in an earlier court filing, Romero admits to making the sign of the cross in the breast area of the daughter in the family.

But the lengthy trail of sexual misconduct accusations in his priesthood, he resolutely denies.

"I said no, no and no. No, I never had any experience with anyone outside of (this family)."

Admits to touching a teen

Born in 1937 in Puerto Rico, Romero's father headed the Civil Defense during World War II. His mother taught dancing to the troops.

The devoutly Catholic family moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., and then to Lake Worth on Florida's east coast, where he and his brother often won the annual altar boy contest.

He was interested in girls and had a girlfriend in the seventh grade who taught him how to ride a bicycle. He had a normal curiosity about sex, he says, which he explored in the library stacks with school boys.

"And they took out this encyclopedia and we are looking at statues, Roman statues with fig leaves and all; and I remember that. That was my first time and I thought it was funny as heck," he chuckles, recalling, "and but, no, other than that, no. No, sex wasn't really an interest."

While studying at a Rochester, N.Y., seminary, he stayed inside while his classmates romped outside. He used to sneak to a basement boiler room to make ship models — the shrunken ships to dot end tables and curio cabinets.

"I never really had like a friend that would be like a confidant, a buddy-buddy, no never," Romero says.

"At no time growing up did you have that?" Weil asks.

"Never, never."

His modeling hobby continues. He's written books about it, two of which are listed on Amazon.com.

Romero says he didn't know about homosexuality growing up but admits to touching a teenager's penis once as an adult.

"And how old were you when you touched a boy's penis?"

Placing his right hand to his face, he rests his chin and waits about 20 seconds, looking into the camera. He furrows his brow in thought.

"Hmm ... in my 50s."

The teenager was 19, he says. His neck twitches when Weil asks the year of the encounter.

It was during his time as a priest at St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church in Moore Haven in the 1980s. The priest said he was nursing the teen back to health. The teen had spent time in a psychiatric hospital because of a drug problem.

"And then probably about a year of this (nursing the teen to health) he woke me up one morning ... and he wanted to show me that he had an erection, partial ..."

In a 2003 court filing, Romero admitted to a half-dozen incidents of mutual masturbation between him and the boy.

Asked if he felt doing that was wrong, Romero veers from the question, saying he was like a substitute father to the teenager and two other children. He had a three-year sexual relationship with the boy's mother.

"I was like involved in it, OK. I wasn't comfortable with it; and I would have to truthfully say, yes, that it's wrong, but it's — but I was almost like trapped in this, OK ...," he said. "It was just all the stress, the strain of the family, so it was like too much for me, so I'd have to say I wasn't in a clear mind whether anything was right or wrong."

Whether masturbation was wrong or a grave sin was blurred for the former priest.

"Well it was — you know, there is a difference in what you mean by wrong, whether you are guilty with full intent of the will," he says.

"Well, your understanding of having succumbed to the temptation to masturbate, you knew it was wrong but it wasn't a grave wrong. . ," Weil asks.

"Right, right," he says, touching the corner of his lips with his fingers.

"And you got that understanding from whom?"

"What we're taught, when we were taught."

The archdiocese and diocese shared the cost of the $1.1 million February settlement in a lawsuit involving the Port St. Lucie teenager and his two siblings. The siblings were identified in the suit only with initials.

A trail of allegations

Ordained in 1967, Romero's first assignment was at Corpus Christi parish in Miami — also the start of a string of sexual misconduct allegations a year later.

Scuttlebutt sprang among the parishioners that the 31-year-old Romero fathered a child. Whispers ceased when the woman gave birth to a black baby.

Romero says he traced the accusation to a 20-something nursing student seeking Catholic instruction. He said she pulled up her skirt in his office during a lesson, revealing no underwear.

"... I looked and she had no panties on. And I immediately got up and I told her to leave. In fact, I said — that, I remember. I said, 'Get the hell out of here,'" he said, raising his voice, eyes widening hashing out the story.

He heard from a friend that church leaders were planning to shift him to another parish.

"Yeah, I went to them raising hell about why the — they called me in, 'Did you father this child? We have a paternity suit against you?' and all that and I said, 'What?' and I was very upset," Romero said.

"In fact I remember seeing the secretary there. I said, 'Is the bishop in?' She says, 'Yes, but you can't go in,' and I said, 'Like hell I can't, watch,' and I walked in and barged in on him ..."

"I blasted hell at the bishop."

After that, the archdiocese paid for counseling, Romero said.

A Tallahassee man would later accuse Romero of sodomy when he was an altar boy there around 1968. The former priest said the man contacted church leaders in recent years to pay for his psychiatry bills.

Romero landed in St. Augustine in Coral Gables from 1970 to 1975. While there, around 1974, he was accused of stabbing a girl. Her father blamed Romero, who says the crime was later pinned on the father.

When Romero learned police wanted to arrest him, he holed up at the home of a judge who was a friend for a few days until it blew over. The police staked out the house.

"In fact, they surrounded his house. There was — we could see two, three police cars there; but they only were there for about one day, yeah."

The former priest said he was never arrested.

He said he received maybe one or two phone calls from church leaders questioning what happened.

"Mr. Romero, did anyone from the church ... investigate or question you about your judgment and how you had handled this whole episode?"

"No. No."

Weil returned to the incident in the second deposition.

"They felt that was a very smart move," Romero asserted.

St. Augustine is where Weil's client — who declined to be interviewed through his lawyer — says Romero fondled his genitals and kissed him on the lips and attempted sodomy in 1975.

Romero said he's never been attracted to boys. St. Augustine used college students as altar boys.

"I don't even know who the heck he is," he says, referring to Weil's client.

Weil's client is identified as A.B. to protect his confidentiality in the lawsuit. The Daily News typically doesn't identify alleged victims of sexual assault.

Following St. Augustine, Romero was assigned to St. Ann school and church in Naples where more accusations followed. A father accused the former priest of sodomy on his son, an eighth-grader, after the priest took the boy to the state fair. The man was jealous of him, Romero said. He didn't elaborate.

Three lawsuits were lodged against Romero, connected to his brief school year in Naples.

The suits alleged he played leapfrog with a 12-year-old, fondled a sixth- or seventh-grader at the beach and forced a girl to remove her clothes.

He denies the accusations in the suits — settled for between $135,000 to $150,000 each — or even knowing some of his accusers. After St. Ann's, church leaders shipped him to a Rhode Island treatment center where he spent a week and never returned to the Naples church.

He was then reassigned to a Miami Beach parish, he said, keeping tight-lipped about the accusations that put him there. He told no one.

"To me, it's disgusting. It's very disturbing," he said, scooting forward on his chair.

In 2003, Romero resigned from the priesthood after retiring in 1995.

He wasn't forced to resign, he said, though it may have been a suggestion given during the three-hour meeting with the Venice Diocese to discuss the allegations.

Church leaders were badgering him during the meeting, he said.

"I just broke down, cried, went hysterical," he said, and lashed out a diocese employee.

"All I remember was saying, 'I will never step foot in this building again, hell will freeze over,' and that's the last inkling I had with the chancery of Venice."

The former priest bristles at Weil's questions probing his spirituality.

"And have you sought forgiveness for any transgressions in your life and you don't have to tell me what they are?"

"That's my personal spiritual life. No, that's very private," Romero says.

"Have you asked for forgiveness for any of the allegations that have been made against you in this case?"

"... That's between me and God," the former priest says.

 
 

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