School Rallies in Support of Priest
Principal Target of Investigation
By Steve Harrison and Donna Gehrke-White
July 11, 2002
Cardinal Gibbons High School issued a strong statement Wednesday in support of its longtime principal who was put on administrative leave pending investigation of an allegation of misconduct.
"We know that Father [Joseph] Kershner is a good person and are disheartened by the damage done to his reputation based on allegations that have not been specific or substantiated," the statement read. "Most of Father Kershner's adult life has been spent in service to his church and school. We are grateful for this dedication and look forward to his return for the opening of the next school year."
Neither the exact nature of the allegation nor the identity of the accuser were made public on Wednesday.
Kershner, 74, has denied the allegation, which his attorney, David Bogenschutz, says dates back to the late 1970s.
"This is a horrible tragedy," said Bogenschutz. "Is he a victim? In a word, yes."
"This is something we don't believe or ever expected to hear," added Assistant Principal Paul D. Ott, who signed the school statement released Wednesday afternoon. He said Father Kershner had "high moral standards."
Ott added that he had never heard of any allegation against the principal in the eight years he has served as assistant principal.
On Wednesday, the Miami Archdiocese was saying little about why church leaders suspended Kershner.
Mary Ross Agosta, spokeswoman for the Miami Archdiocese, said that she could only confirm that the archdiocese had put Kershner on administrative leave last month. "Our policy is that we don't discuss any personnel issues," she said.
Until he is reinstated, Kershner may not wear his clerical garb, talk publicly about being a priest or conduct any ministerial duties, Agosta added.
"When they're on administrative leave," she said, "they need not to function publicly as a priest."
The Broward State Attorney's Office is investigating the complaint, said Assistant State Attorney Dennis Siegel, who heads up child abuse and sex crimes cases.
Kershner is out of town and could not be reached for comment.
Faculty at Cardinal Gibbons were stunned and tight-lipped about the suspension Wednesday.
Bogenschutz said the archdiocese had overreacted in suspending Kershner.
"This is one of the most benign allegations I have ever seen," he said. "With his reputation and time served in the community, he shouldn't have been suspended."
The attorney added that the outrage against the Catholic Church over priests who have molested children led to Kershner's suspension. Since 1998, 12 priests in the Miami Archdiocese have been put on administrative leave or have taken early retirement because of past sexual misconduct allegations.
Cardinal Gibbons, founded in the early 1960s, is off Bayview Drive in Fort Lauderdale's Coral Ridge neighborhood. It has 1,141 students, and is the county's second-largest Catholic high school after St. Thomas Aquinas.
Kershner has been with the school for almost its entire existence, becoming principal in 1990.
One student said that Ott mostly ran the school, and that Kershner was rarely seen.
"He always seemed unapproachable," said Warren Shaw, a 1995 graduate. "He was old school, overly strict, almost mean."
But the statement issued Wednesday talked of a deeply spiritual Kershner.
"Father Kershner's greatest joy is to lead the student body in the celebration of the Mass. He continually invites his students to stop by the school chapel for a short visit with the Lord. We know that his deep faith will sustain him during these unsettling times."
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