Victim tells story of sex abuse by priest
By Mary Wozniak
August 24, 2014
The 16-year-old boy molested by a priest serving at a Fort Myers church is now a 37-year-old man who remains haunted, angry and determined to help stop others from suffering his fate.
The Port Charlotte man spoke of his experience at the hands of the Rev. Jean Ronald Joseph for the first time Wednesday, exclusively to The News-Press. His story is one of an accuser's worst nightmare: Outed by the accused and his attorney at a news conference; the letter he sent to church officials describing the abuse and its effect on him read aloud; his own community turning its back on him.
A six-figure settlement with the Diocese of Venice in the case was announced Tuesday by his attorney, Adam Horowitz. The News-Press does not name victims of sexual abuse.
The victim, who came forward in 2008, said he spoke out 15 years after the 1993 incident not because he wanted money but to stop Joseph, who his dying mother considered a second son, from participating in her funeral.
"For many years, I just acted like it never happened and tried to move on with my life," he said. When his mother was dying from cancer and lupus, he knew he had to tell her. Besides, he said he realized he was getting older, and knew he had to face what had happened.
"She felt he was supposed to be a good role model for me," the victim said. His mother handled the news "pretty well," he said. "That is one of the best moments I had and I regret not telling her earlier."
The victim said he learned only in April that Joseph was found guilty in 2013 after a trial held by the Diocese of Venice, and defrocked. He found out only because another priest leaked the diocese tribunal trial documents to his father, the victim said.
The documents are a fascinating look inside a kind of Catholic Church chamber of secrets, showing how church officials deal with the transgressions of their own.
When asked why it took nearly five years for the diocese to investigate the 2008 accusation against Joseph and arrive at its conclusion, diocese spokesman Benedict Nguyen responded in a statement that the diocese had to follow its policies and procedures. "His (priestly) faculties were removed and he was taken out of active ministry. As with legal proceedings, thorough information had to be gathered and legal time frames respected."
The victim had eight phone interviews and one personal interview with a diocese social worker, according to trial documents. He also was interviewed by a former FBI agent who serves as a diocesan investigator. Both found him credible. Nguyen said the victim also testified before the Diocesan Review Board but declined to testify in the trial.
The diocese respected his decision, Nguyen said. "However, this also made it more challenging to be able to move forward with the process."
The victim insists he did not know of the trial. "I was never invited or informed of a trial. Never," he said. "Nobody ever contacted me in regards to this. I learned about the verdict from my father."
Appeal to Rome
Joseph has appealed the diocese decision to Rome. His canonical defense lawyer, Rev. Michael L. Maginot, said in a statement by law, the decision of the diocesan tribunal is suspended until Rome renders a verdict.
Nguyen said Rome "can implement the action of dismissal from the clerical state," and that Joseph continues to be suspended by the diocese. "He cannot function anywhere as a priest, and is forbidden from active ministry."
Joseph also said he suffered, detailing his emotions in a 2009 rally-style news conference held by Joseph and his then-lawyer, John P. Fleck. At the time, the priest was serving at St. Bernard Catholic Church in Holmes Beach.
An article in The Islander, a community newspaper on Anna Maria Island, describes about 150 gathered in Holmes Beach City Hall, some carrying white roses, in support of the priest. At the forum, Fleck read from the victim's letter sent to church officials informing them of the abuse. "Joseph compared the accusation against him to the betrayal of Jesus by one of his apostles," the article said.
The event was scheduled by publisher of the Islander, Bonner Joy, a supporter of the priest verbally and in print. Earlier in the week, she said the trial and verdict were "a miscarriage of justice" and Joseph is being "lynched" before they ever finish the trial.
The priest and the victim are Haitian. The victim said he was ostracized by the Haitian community. "The Haitian people are a very loving, caring breed of people but very naive," he said. "In their minds, the priest could do no wrong."
He fought with his father about his father's continuing involvement with his Port Charlotte Church. "A lot of people turned on us," he said. His father told him, "I'm not serving them, I'm serving God."
Meanwhile, the investigation and trial was proceeding within the diocese. The documents state Joseph first denied all allegations about having boys sleep over, then explained "how his Haitian culture justified his behavior." He later hired a lawyer and accused the diocese of racial bias.
Priests and rectory staff described the comings and goings of male teenagers at the St. Francis Xavier Church rectory, in violation of diocesan rules. Joseph was reprimanded twice by his pastor for allowing the boys to spend the night.
The teenagers were members of Joseph's Haitian youth group. Joseph also took some of its members on several of his mission trips to Haiti. No allegations were ever made. But a nun from a religious group who lived in a house Joseph owned in Haiti testified "she believes she and her sisters were there to provide cover for the defendant's homosexual behavior," trial documents said.
Boys from the group regularly spent the night with the priest in his bed. The victim said he slept over more than a dozen times. "Being young and naive, we never thought it was an issue or problem." Joseph was an authority figure they trusted, he said.
But one night, he woke to find Joseph fondling his penis. "I didn't know whether to scream or run," he said. "I closed my eyes and acted like I was sleeping." The priest stopped when he did not respond.
"I was in shock and disbelief," the victim said.
Now some of the same people who accused him of lying come up to him and say "I didn't know," the victim said. "I basically tell people to go to hell."
When he's seen other priests he met through Joseph, it's awkward, he said. "They don't know how to respond to me. They know how I feel. I see that priest in their eyes."
The victim said he knows his name is cleared and the priest was found guilty, but doesn't feel justice has been done. "I have to live with this for the rest of my life. I am just happy now to go ahead and move and start a new life and try to rehabilitate the years I have left."