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  Priest Forced to Step down
Catholic Diocese Probing Allegations

By Mark Bowes and Mark Holmberg
Richmond Times Dispatch (Virginia)
May 5, 2002

A well-known and popular Catholic priest who heads a thriving parish in western Henrico County is being forced to step down while the Catholic Diocese of Richmond investigates allegations he engaged in improper sexual behavior about 24 years ago.

The allegations against the Rev. John E. Leonard, pastor of St. Michael Catholic Church in Glen Allen, come amid a national sex abuse scandal that has engulfed the U.S. Catholic church.

Leonard, a 63-year-old Richmond native who recently celebrated his 37th anniversary as a priest, is the first known Richmond area priest to come under scrutiny since the national scandal erupted in January. The alleged incident involved a male teen-ager.

"It's the closest thing I know to hell," he said in an interview after Mass last night.

More than 400 stunned parishioners, some of them crying, listened as "Father John" broke the news and proclaimed his innocence at the end of Mass inside the church at 4491 Springfield Road.

"I wish I didn't have to do this," he said. "This is a fear of anybody in public ministry today . . ." He took a breath and started reading from a letter being sent to all St. Michael's parishioners:

"I have been wrongly accused of inappropriate behavior by a former student at St. John Vianney prep seminary based on an alleged incident which supposedly occurred while I was serving as principal more than 30 years ago," he began.

"But because of today's climate for priest and diocesan policy," Leonard told his parishioners, "I will be placed on administrative leave. . . . I am innocent of these accusations and I ask for your prayers during this time. The diocese will conduct a thorough investigation and you will be informed when that is over, as well as the results."

He stopped reading and made eye contact with those listening. "This policy is a good policy . . . there is no room in the priesthood" for anyone who commits a physical or sexual assault.

But in the midst of the current scandal, he added, "some innocent people will be accused."

He continued reading: "I am certain I will be completely exonerated of these charges and will be reinstated as your pastor at the conclusion of the investigation."

He added this postscript: "This is a very hard time. I need you. I am learning to find God in suffering and prayer."

The most Rev. Walter F. Sullivan, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, said in a statement released yesterday that he will place Leonard on administrative leave, effective Monday, while the diocese investigates.

Local law enforcement authorities apparently are not involved, according to several area officials who were unfamiliar with the allegations.

Less than a week ago, according to the diocese, an individual contacted one of Sullivan's episcopal vicars with information implicating Leonard "in improper sexual behavior more than 24 years ago."

Since then, the diocese said it received an anonymous complaint about Leonard "relating to unspecified events in the same past time frame."

During the time frame of the allegations, Leonard was rector of St. John Vianney Seminary, a now-defunct diocesan high school seminary in Goochland County.

The school, which closed in 1978, was designed to give a formative education to those high school students who were contemplating entering the priesthood.

St. Michael's parishioners could hardly believe their ears last night as they left the church, which is in the midst of a large building expansion.

"I'm just so hurt for him," said Julie Dolan, who was in tears. "I know it's not true."

"We stand behind him 100 percent," said Curt Hornstra, chairman of the church's leadership council. He looked at the faces of those around him. "They all love him here, that's for sure."

Tears fell from the eyes of 14-year-old Laura Sill. "I don't think it's true. It's not true."

Her father, Scott Sill, said the church is strong enough to handle this.

"[Father John] has always said he's not the center of the church, the community is," Sill said. "We'll pull together, he'll be found innocent, and we'll go on from there."

His wife, Catherine Sill, said Leonard will be showered with support. "People have flocked here because of him."

"That's why we need a new building," Laura Sill added.

Leonard has led St. Michael's since its founding in 1992, parishioners said last night.

He was appointed to the faculty at St. John Vianney Seminary in May 1968 along with two other priests, and he served as the school's rector from 1974 until it closed in 1978, according to news accounts and the Rev. Pat Apuzzo, a diocesan spokesman.

After leaving St. John Vianney, Leonard became the founding pastor of the Catholic Church of the Epiphany in Chesterfield County.

Sullivan, in accordance with diocesan regulations, has directed that an "investigation/assessment team" evaluate the complaints against Leonard.

Leonard said he had received nothing in writing about the allegations.

"As I understand it, someone will be appointed to oversee the parish," he said. "It could be our deacon, it could be the administrative assistant, it could be one of the priests in the area."

But one thing, he said, is clear: "I do no pastoral work until the investigation is completed."

 
 

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