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  E-Mails Triggered Priest Investigation

By Mark Bowes
Richmond Times Dispatch (Virginia)
May 8, 2002

The principal allegation against the pastor of a Henrico County church does not involve "sexual physical contact," a spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Richmond said yesterday.

A former St. John Vianney Seminary student told church officials last week that the encounter he allegedly had with the Rev. John E. Leonard about 24 years ago did not involve genital contact, said the Rev. Pat Apuzzo, a diocesan spokesman. But the incident could be perceived as being sexual in nature, he said.

"He wasn't calling it sex abuse as far as I know," Apuzzo said. ". . . He wasn't saying, 'I want you to take action against the priest.'

"I guess it was more of a [situation of], 'You all judge for yourself [whether it was inappropriate]' "

The man, who would have been in his mid-teens at the time, apparently came forward after receiving or learning about an e-mail message that had been sent to former St. John Vianney students by a reporter for Style Weekly, a local newspaper.

Several days later, the diocese received a second e-mail allegation against Leonard that Apuzzo said made reference to the same reporter's e-mail inquiry.

The anonymous e-mail message, according to Apuzzo, said: "I received the following letter from a reporter last week. I believe the allegations to be true."

The anonymous writer was responding to an e-mail he received from the reporter, who wrote that she had been told of complaints of inappropriate sexual conduct at St. John Vianney under Leonard.

Leonard, 63, was placed on administrative leave effective Monday until the matter is resolved. That meant he had to step down temporarily as pastor of St. Michael Catholic Church in Glen Allen.

Citing the investigation, Apuzzo declined to provide details of the first incident, as related by the former student in a face-to-face interview with Monsignor Thomas Caroluzza.

But Apuzzo said the activity could be perceived as being sexually inappropriate or worse.

"It's a question of interpretation - what the young man was understanding it to be, and what the priest was understanding it to be. That's why it needs to be investigated."

Apuzzo said the Most Rev. Walter F. Sullivan, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, believed it prudent to investigate further.

"The way we're looking at it, [the allegation] is out there, and we didn't want it hanging over [Leonard's ] head, and we didn't want it hanging over our head," Apuzzo said.

Leonard, who recently celebrated his 37th anniversary as a priest, has led St. Michael's since its founding in 1992. In a message to his congregation last weekend, Leonard proclaimed his innocence, saying he had been wrongly accused.

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

During the time frame of the allegations, Leonard was rector of St. John Vianney, a now-defunct diocesan high school that closed in 1978.

Caroluzza, the top diocesan representative in eastern Virginia under Bishop Sullivan, and Theresa May, a local mental health professional, have been tapped to look into the allegations. They have 10 days to complete their work and report their findings to the diocese.

Their report will be reviewed by the Diocesan Sexual Abuse Panel, which includes a civil lawyer, a canon lawyer, a lay person, a diocesan priest and several sexual abuse and human resource professionals, who will make recommendations to the bishop. The review process must be completed within 60 days.

 
 

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