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  Lawyer Blames Suspension on 'Hysteria'

By Donna Gehrke-White
Miami Herald
July 12, 2002

The complaint came in after the priest sex scandal erupted nationwide: A Cardinal Gibbons principal in Fort Lauderdale had grabbed the buttocks of a student -- about 30 years ago.

Although the alleged victim, now in his 40s, says he doesn't remember exactly when the touching happened -- and the statute of limitations on the alleged offense has expired -- the Miami Archdiocese had no choice but to relieve the 74-year-old Rev. Joseph Kershner of duty in light of its own guidelines and the stringent rules passed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"Hysteria," Kershner's attorney, J. David Bogenschutz, said Thursday as he described the circumstances of Kershner's abrupt suspension in June after 38 years at Broward's second-largest Catholic high school.

The priest, Bogenschutz said, received a letter from the archdiocese last month telling him that he was being relieved of duty pending an investigation.

"We adhere to the guidelines we have in place," said archdiocese spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta.

She declined to talk about the allegations. She said the archdiocese's response team -- a lay doctor, psychiatrist, attorney and canon lawyer as well as a priest to be appointed by Archbishop John C. Favalora -- would be looking into the case.

The response team will pass its recommendations on to Favalora, who will decide whether Kershner remains suspended or is reinstated.

The Broward County state attorney's office is also investigating, even though the four-year statute of limitations expired decades ago.

"We try to look at every aspect of the case from all sides," said Broward Assistant State Attorney Dennis Siegel, who is in charge of the sex-crimes and child-abuse unit.

He added that the probe is "nearing an end."

Some bishops at the Dallas meeting last month had argued that under the stringent new rules, some innocent priests would be caught up in the furor to oust sexualoffenders.

On Thursday, Bogenschutz said that's what happened to his client. He described the allegations as "benign, almost locker-room stuff. There was not graphic sexual contact. This is so far gone, it's unbelievable."

The alleged victim, who attended Cardinal Gibbons in the 1970s, accused Kershner of touching him on the buttocks -- which Kershner denies.

Mark Vincent Serrano, a board member of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, said all such allegations must be investigated.

"We can look at a case and people can dismiss it as, well, it's merely a touching of the buttocks. But in most cases it's a sign of something else," he said.

And he asked: "Why is someone in a clerical collar touching the buttocks of a child? "For the sake of the victim -- whose interests must always come first -- we can't dismiss it."

Serrano praised the Broward state attorney's office for checking into the allegations.

"Let's listen to what the prosecutors say," he said. "They're the ones I put my faith in."

 
 

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