Former Priest Retires As '05 Inquiry Is Aired
A Counselor at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Broward County Resigned This Week after the Miami Herald Inquired about His Life As a Priest in Philadelphia during the 1960s
By Jay Weaver
Miami Herald [Miami]
December 16, 2006
Ernest Durante kept a low profile as a guidance counselor at St. Thomas Aquinas High School -- until allegations about his priestly past resurfaced this fall.
A Philadelphia woman who once knew Durante contacted the Fort Lauderdale school to report that he was an ex-priest who had been identified in a 2005 grand jury report on Catholic clergymen accused of sexually abusing children.
Durante was not charged with any crime, but the report said he "sometimes watched" as a fellow priest sexually abused a 14-year-old male student in 1967 at a Catholic high school in Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia grand jury report said Durante and the colleague, the Rev. John Schmeer, took the boy to homes they shared in the Philadelphia area and the New Jersey Shore, where they gave him Playboy magazines and introduced him to a teenage girl.
It spotlighted one incident where Durante and Schmeer went swimming in the deep end of a seminary pool where Schmeer took off the boy's bathing suit and fondled him. "[T]he priest . . . was rubbing up against the boy," according to the report released last year by the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office. "Father Ernest Durante was in the pool, watching."
Durante -- who left the priesthood in 1987 to get married and has been a guidance counselor at St. Thomas Aquinas for 10 years -- said he never sexually abused any minor during his long career as a Catholic school educator in Philadelphia or South Florida.
Schmeer has since been removed from the ministry.
Durante, who is 68 and lives in Hollywood, agreed to an interview with The Miami Herald on Tuesday but canceled it.
"I've done nothing wrong," he told a reporter on the phone before canceling the interview. "I'm totally innocent of what was said up there."
Asks to retire
On Thursday, Durante asked St. Thomas Aquinas to accept his request to retire "due to personal reasons" and the school did so by placing the announcement on its web page -- thanking him for "his years of faithful service."
The announcement noted that Durante "has denied these allegations" stemming from his tenure as a priest in Philadelphia and that "no charges were ever brought against him."
The Archdiocese of Miami, which owns and operates St. Thomas Aquinas, said it knew of no sexual abuse complaints filed against Durante as a guidance counselor at the Fort Lauderdale school, adding that he cleared two background checks by the FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia determined that the boy's sex-abuse allegations against Schmeer, dating back to 1967, were "not credible," but the Philadelphia grand jury identified Schmeer among 63 priests accused of sexual abuse in a lengthy report.
The panel did not fully investigate Durante because he had left the priesthood nearly two decades ago, prosecutors said.
This fall, the Philadelphia woman contacted St. Thomas Aquinas after recognizing Durante in a photo on the school's web page.
Nancy Green, who says Durante taught her religion at a Catholic high school in Philadelphia in 1977, said she learned about his past on a website called BishopAccountability.org.
It has documented the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church since it exploded in 2002.
"Since my experiences with "Father Ernie" were always positive, I was saddened to see him implicated in this scandal," Green wrote in an e-mail to St. Thomas Aquinas officials.
"I would be frightened to know that a man with such a questionable history had access to my children," said Green, a mother of three.
"I would imagine that the parents at St. Thomas Aquinas would feel the same."
The school's principal, Tina Jones, responded in an e-mail, extending thanks "for your concern for our students and future students."
Jones attached a letter that said: "There is no reason to believe he has been implicated in the abuse scandal except by his working association with another priest [Schmeer]."
Appalled by answer
Green said she was appalled by the school's response.
"They seem to be missing the point," Green told The Herald.
"While it's true that Mr. Durante was not accused as a perpetrator himself, he was accused of being present, repeatedly, while the abuse was taking place, fully aware of it and doing nothing to stop it.
"If the Philadelphia District Attorney's Report is correct, that makes Mr. Durante, in my view, even worse than the bishops who covered up the crimes of the pedophiles. He actually witnessed the crimes taking place and did nothing."
The former male student, who alleged Schmeer abused him at age 14 while Durante watched, first brought a complaint to the attention of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 2002.
The archdiocese said it contacted authorities and conducted an internal review, finding "the allegations to be unsubstantiated" the following year.
As part of the internal review, the archdiocese hired a private investigator to probe the alleged victim's personal life, court records show.
In 2004, the former student, identified as "C.T.G.," filed a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, detailing allegations of sexual abuse by Schmeer and Durante's role.
His civil complaint mirrored allegations in the grand jury report published last year.
The unidentified complainant said he met Schmeer, a science teacher, in his freshman year at Roman Catholic High School in 1967.
Schmeer became his guidance counselor and spiritual mentor, with his mother's approval. Durante, a teacher and counselor at the same school, was the boy's baseball coach.
Schmeer used the guidance counselor sessions "to groom" the boy for abuse by discussing masturbation, according to the suit. Durante often stood in Schmeer's office and observed the sessions between Schmeer and the boy, the suit said.
Jay Abramowitch, a Pennsylvania lawyer who represented the boy, said Durante "aided and abetted" Schmeer's abuse of his client, who is now 53.
The initial suit was dismissed because the statute of limitations had run out, but Abramowitch recently filed another civil case accusing the Archdiocese of Philadelphia of violating his client's privacy.
Said Abramowitch: "We're not quitting. We're not finished yet."
The initial civil suit and the grand jury report cited three other alleged incidents:
• Schmeer and Durante took the boy to a seminary pool on at least two occasions, requiring him to disrobe and swim naked with them. On one of those occasions, they took the boy, who had difficulty swimming, into the deep end. There, Schmeer fondled him -- causing the boy "to scream and cry out for help," the suit said. "I started crying," the boy was quoted in the grand jury report. "I was freaked." For his part, Durante watched and did nothing to help him, according to the suit and the report.
• Both priests took the boy to a home they shared in the affluent community of Gladwyne, where they gave him copies of Playboy magazine. They "encouraged [him] to masturbate so that they could observe him doing so," the suit said. The boy was quoted in the grand jury report saying that he walked around the house and saw Schmeer and Durante "sitting on a large leather couch, masturbating."
• The two priests also took the boy to their beach house on the New Jersey shore, where they put him in a room with a "17-year-old very nice looking girl," according to the grand jury report. The boy said he began talking with the girl, and she suddenly started kissing him. He ran from the room because he was shy, the report said. The priests were watching from another room.
With publicity from the initial lawsuit, several other alleged victims of Schmeer's filed new complaints with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which found them "credible." In the fall of 2004, archdiocese officials removed Schmeer from public ministry and placed him in a retirement home for priests.
Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer Nancy Phillips contributed to this report. The Philadelphia Grand Jury Report can be read at www.philadelphiadistrictattorney.com.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.