Charges Stand in Priest's Sex Case

By Craig Pittman
St. Petersburg Times (Florida)
November 8, 1997

A judge Friday let stand charges that a Sarasota priest tried to seduce a child using an online service, even though the "child" was actually a Clearwater police detective.

The priest's attorney had contended that without a real victim there was no crime, and that the charges violated his client's constitutional right to free speech.

But Circuit Judge Anthony Rondolino disagreed.

"I am unwilling as a trial judge to accept the idea that law enforcement officers have to offer up our children to pedophiles in order to convict them," Rondolino said. "I think it's permissible for law enforcement to use subterfuge in order to catch criminals."

However, Rondolino postponed ruling on another defense motion: that by charging the priest with two felonies stemming from his actions, the prosecution had put him at risk of double jeopardy.

Both the defense and prosecution said the facts of the case are not in dispute, only the law.

For almost a month Jeremiah Spillane, 43, a Catholic priest from Sarasota, exchanged e-mail messages about sexual practices and positions with someone he knew as Tommy, whom he had met in an America Online chat room. Tommy said he was 13.

On Feb. 10, Spillane made a date to meet Tommy in Clearwater for sex. But when Spillane showed up for the date, he discovered "Tommy" was 34-year-old Clearwater police Detective Chuck Esposito.

Esposito arrested him on charges of seducing a child via a computer and attempting a lewd and lascivious act on a child.

At the time of his arrest, Spillane was on staff at Sarasota's Church of the Incarnation and was chaplain at Cardinal Mooney High School, where he conducted a weekly Mass. After he was arrested, he was put on administrative leave.

Spillane told Esposito that he had rented a room at a bed and breakfast for a sexual encounter with "Tommy." In the room police said they found a dildo, four wrapped condoms and bottles of baby oil, lotion and scented oil.

At hearings two months ago and again Friday, defense attorney Joseph Ciarciaglino argued that the charges against Spillane should be tossed out because without a real child, the prosecution could not prove his client intended to do anything illegal.

"Spillane was never given the opportunity to view the underage child and decide whether he was going to engage in lewd and lascivious conduct," he said.

Spillane's e-mails would have been legally protected speech if sent to an adult, he said.

But prosecutor Richard McKyton contended that there was a real person on the other end of the e-mail exchange, just not the one Spillane expected. Rondolino agreed with McKyton.

Ciarciaglino tried several other ways to get the charges dropped, but Rondolino shot them all down except for the double jeopardy argument.

Ciarciaglino contended that the only difference between the two charges facing his client was that one involved using a computer. But McKyton told the judge that there is another difference.

The crime of seduction via computer was complete once Spillane sent "Tommy" the e-mail messages about having sex, McKyton said. But to commit the crime of attempted lewd and lascivious act, Spillane had to get in his car and drive to Clearwater for the rendezvous, he said.

The judge said he would rule on the double jeopardy issue prior to a hearing next month. So far no trial date has been set.


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