Computer Sex Crime
Diocese Places Priest on Leave
The Priest Is Accused of Using the Internet to Try to Arrange a Sexual Encounter with a Minor
By Juli Cragg Hilliard
Sarasota Herald-Tribune (Florida)
February 12, 1997
Clearwater police knew the suspect was a man who was arriving for what was supposed to be a sexual encounter, arranged by computer, with a 13-year-old boy.
But Detective Chuck Esposito, who had posed as the boy, said Tuesday that it was only while searching the suspect's belongings that he realized the man was a Catholic priest.
He arrested the Rev. Jeremiah Michael Spillane, a staff member at Sarasota's Church of the Incarnation, and charged him with attempting to commit a lewd or lascivious act with a minor.
Spillane, who has worked most of his pastoral career in foreign schools, has been placed on administrative leave by Diocese of Venice Bishop John Nevins.
"It is always a sad and hurtful time for the Church, her priests and the faithful when anyone in our midst is accused of wrongdoing. Nevertheless, appropriate action must be taken," Nevins said in a prepared statement read at a news conference Tuesday afternoon. He did not take questions.
Nevins said he hoped that the allegations were unfounded, but "if you have a personal experience that suggests the contrary, I invite you to call my office."
Spillane, 43, was arrested Monday at a Clearwater gas station where he had arranged to meet the boy.
He made a "full admission," said Esposito, who specializes in computer sex crimes.
Esposito said it is the first time he and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement have encountered a clergy member in such a case.
A spokeswoman for the Catholic bishops said she had not heard of a similar situation involving a priest.
"This is a relatively new phenomenon, I think," said Sister Mary Ann Walsh at the U.S. Bishops' Conference in Washington, D.C.
Spillane was released from the Pinellas County Jail after posting bail.
His computer was seized after he gave consent for Sarasota County law-enforcement officers to search his apartment at the rectory on Incarnation Church grounds, 2900 block Bee Ridge Road, Esposito said.
Spillane has been at Incarnation Church 16 months. Nevins said he was considered a "good and spiritual man." Spillane has been chaplain at Sarasota's Cardinal Mooney High and celebrated Mass there Wednesdays, said Principal Bob Siccone.
Siccone said Spillane's arrest was discussed with each class Tuesday.
"Most of the students don't really know him," Siccone said.
Efforts to speak with clergy at Incarnation were unsuccessful.
Sister Monica Paul, principal of the school for kindergarten through eighth grade on the same property, declined to comment.
Parents approached while picking up their children after school said they did not want to talk about the matter.
"It's a terrible thing," said one mother.
"I'm still in shock," said another, tucking her daughter, a first-grade student, into the back seat of their car. "I don't want to discuss it in front of her."
Spillane's previous pastoral experience, beginning in 1974, has mostly been in schools in Mexico and overseas, according to the diocese.
He was ordained in 1986 in Rome for the Legionaries of Christ.
Before coming to Sarasota in 1995, Spillane spent five years in Cozumel, Mexico, as a parish priest, vice principal, teacher, chaplain and spiritual director.
Esposito, pretending to be a 13-year-old boy, corresponded by computer with Spillane for about three weeks.
Spillane said he had counseled teen-agers, Esposito said, and "began discussing sexual orientation quickly."
Spillane first offered friendship, and then sex, Esposito said.
When the priest arrived, as arranged, at the Clearwater gas station, he was carrying condoms, lubricants and homosexual erotic magazines, Esposito said.
At the police station after his arrest, Spillane told detectives it was the first time he had attempted such a meeting.
"They all say that," Esposito said.
In 1995, the Diocese of Venice adopted a policy for dealing with sexual misconduct.
Spokeswoman Gail McGrath said the diocese has not had any cases involving sexual misconduct since then. At this point, Spillane's situation seems to be a "gray area" to which those guidelines may not apply because the "victim" involved was fictitious, she said.
"The allegations, if proved to be true, are totally inappropriate, unacceptable and illegal, but that does not necessarily make us use the document."
She said when Roman Catholic clergy are accused of sexual crimes, they tend to make the news.
"And compared to the number of good men who are out there serving day by day, the number is very small. However, even one is unacceptable," McGrath said.
Computer safety tips
Experts offer these suggestions for parents who have home computers:
* Know how to use your computer system so you can monitor your children's use of it.
* Place your computer in an area of your home that is open to family members rather than in a bedroom or place where you cannot see how it's being used.
* Instruct children who use your computer not to reveal names, addresses or telephone numbers to anyone. Check picture files to see if they contain pornography.
* Monitor sections where people can talk anonymously.
* Subscribe to on-line services that provide parental controls on areas.
* Don't permit children to have an account.
* Keep the password to yourself. Only allow children to sign on when you are present.
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