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  Priest Cleared of Accusation
Leonard to Return to St. Michael Today

By Alberta Lindsey
Richmond Times Dispatch (Virginia)
June 19, 2002

The Rev. John E. Leonard will do something today he hasn't done for six weeks: lead Mass at his church.

"I can't wait to get back to work," said the pastor of St. Michael Catholic Church in Glen Allen.

Leonard, 63, a priest for 37 years, was reinstated yesterday to the priestly ministry and as pastor of St. Michael after being cleared of an accusation that he engaged in improper sexual behavior about 30 years ago.

The Most Rev. Walter F. Sullivan, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, placed Leonard on administrative leave May 6 after an allegation. The alleged incident occurred while the priest was on the faculty of St. John Vianney Seminary in Goochland County. St. John, a diocesan high school, closed in 1978. Leonard joined the faculty in 1968 and served as rector from 1974 until it closed.

Leonard's reinstatement was announced at a news conference.

Sullivan concluded that removing Leonard from the ministry was unwarranted, he said in a prepared statement read by the Rev. Pat Apuzzo, spokesman for the diocese. Neither Sullivan nor Leonard attended the news conference.

Apuzzo said the bishop's decision came after studying materials gathered by a team appointed to investigate the allegation, making further inquiries and consulting with advisers.

The investigative team's report is confidential, and no one but the bishop and the Diocesan Sexual Abuse Panel sees it, he said. Apuzzo added that he did not know who made the claim against Leonard or the specifics of the allegation.

Leonard, who maintained his innocence from the beginning, declined yesterday to discuss the allegation or investigation.

In a telephone interview yesterday, he called the last six-plus weeks the most painful experience he's been through. "Everything that you believe, everything that you stand for, becomes unraveled," he said. "I've spent my entire life helping people see that God was afoot in their lives. For the first time, I had to let people show me that God was afoot in my life."

Leonard said he isn't angry about what has happened. He called it a growing experience.

"I don't understand why someone would do this. I understand the human heart. I understand people's emotions. I haven't been angry. I'm glad of that. The last person I want to be is angry and bitter. The priesthood doesn't need angry, bitter people."

The members of the church Leonard founded 10 years ago are a grand group of people, he said. He added that parishioners have left voice mails and put notes of support on his front porch and in his mailbox.

Parishioners expressed delight that their priest had been reinstated.

The Rev. David Nemetz, permanent deacon at St. Michael who served as church administrator while the allegation against Leonard was investigated, said: "I am really excited. Everybody is happy."

About 75 people stopped by the church yesterday to express their joy after hearing the news, Nemetz said.

Betsy Mullen, a charter church member, said she is "absolutely thrilled with the news he's coming back. I've talked to so many people who say the same thing. . . . We didn't believe he ever did anything inappropriate. . . . I would trust him alone with children or with teen-agers." She is the wife of Times-Dispatch assistant metro editor Tom Mullen.

Curt Hornstra, chairman of the church's leadership council, said the news "rejuvenates the whole parish. There's a lot of love and support there for that man."

Member Andy Ferguson added: "We trusted in the process and believed it would in the end return [Leonard] to the parish. And it has. I'm thrilled he's coming back."

Leonard said he looks forward to celebrating Mass this weekend.

"At two of the Masses, we will have infant baptisms. That's new life," he said. "It will help dilute some of the emotion. You can't compete with a baby."

 
 

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