Bishop Defends Reinstatement
By Alberta Lindsey
Richmond Times Dispatch (Virginia)
July 19, 2002
Richmond's Catholic bishop acknowledged that some of the Rev. John Leonard's actions might have been improper, but they weren't serious enough to remove him.
"You have to have strong reasons to remove a priest," said the Most Rev. Walter F. Sullivan, bishop of the 208,008 active parishioners in the Catholic Diocese of Richmond. There wasn't enough evidence to warrant drastic action against Leonard, pastor of St. Michael Catholic Church in Glen Allen, Sullivan said.
"There were different standards then than today," Sullivan said. "I judged by standards at that time. It's not fair to judge by today's standards. You can't give a guy a spanking today. Even by today's definition [of child sexual abuse], I would not have removed him."
In May, three of Leonard's former students told an investigative team that he had engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior about 30 years ago. The alleged incidents occurred when the three were attending St. John Vianney Seminary, then a diocesan high school in Goochland County.
Leonard was placed on leave while the allegations were investigated. Sullivan reinstated him last month.
Leonard, who has maintained his innocence from the beginning, referred questions to his lawyer Wednesday. James C. Roberts, the lawyer, said Leonard has seen the written statements given to the investigative team and that he denies all of them. Roberts refused to allow a reporter to see the statements, citing confidentiality.
The Rev. Pasquale J. Apuzzo, spokesman for the diocese, said Sullivan used a large volume of information, not just allegations from the former students, in making his decision. The bishop talked to other men who had attended the seminary.
"It appears that interactions that had no sexual connotations whatsoever, and were not reported as such, might have occurred," such as letting a student enter a priest's bedroom or hugging. "That isn't suitable today. They were the kind of things that could be considered imprudent and in that sense, a mistake," he said. That's what the bishop was saying when he said some of Leonard's actions might have been improper, Apuzzo added.
Sullivan also had Leonard undergo an extensive evaluation by mental health professionals; they said there was no indication that the priest had participated in the kind of behavior described in the allegations, Apuzzo said.
St. John Vianney, which closed in 1978, was designed to give a formative education to high school students who were contemplating entering the priesthood. Leonard, now 63 and a priest for 37 years, joined St. John's faculty in 1968 and served as rector from 1974 until it closed.
The allegations include Leonard telling teenage boys to lower their pants and underwear to their knees and expose their penises, and inviting a student to his bedroom to massage his back. They also include the priest massaging an unclothed student, and wrestling with a student and saying he loved and wanted the student.
When Sullivan reinstated Leonard last month, the bishop said removing him from the ministry was unwarranted.
Wednesday, Sullivan said: "I have no regrets of my decision. I think I made the right decision. .*.*. I'm not a person who is going to be weak on these issues. In *'92, I told priests that I would see them in jail if they abused children."
Not everyone agrees with the bishop's decision, including those making the allegations and a witness. Several people have left St. Michael Church, and at least one person has resigned from the diocesan Sexual Abuse Panel.
The 10-member panel, appointed by the bishop, administers the Diocesan Regulations for the Response to Claims of Sexual Abuse of Minors, which have been in effect since 1998. The panel appointed a two-member team to investigate the allegations against Leonard.
The team members were Monsignor Thomas J. Caroluzza, the bishop's assistant in eastern Virginia, and Dr. Therese M. May, an Ashland psychologist. May also was a panel member until she resigned from that post this month, saying a person shouldn't serve on the investigative team and the panel.
After their investigation, Caroluzza and May prepared a report that was given to Sullivan and to Monsignor Robert M. Perkins, chairman of the sexual abuse panel, Caroluzza said.
Some panel members said they never have seen that report.
Citing confidentiality, both Caroluzza and May declined to discuss the contents of the report.
However, when May was asked whether she was surprised that Leonard was returned to the parish, she said, "Yes."
Sullivan said: "I amended the report's recommendations."
An official with a victim advocacy group told The Washington Post that Sullivan's decision, which came four days after U.S. Catholic bishops met in Dallas and approved tougher personal conduct guidelines for priests, shows how difficult enforcement of those standards will be.
The Leonard case "typifies all our worst fears, which are that even after Dallas, it's back to business as usual with bishops selectively following their own pre-existing policies," said David Clohessy, executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
By reinstating Leonard, Sullivan said he was not questioning the credibility of the men making the allegations. "What they said didn't warrant drastic action," the bishop said.
In recent interviews, three men - at times fighting back tears - made allegations against Leonard involving incidents that they called sexual abuse. Two of the men asked that their names not be published.
The three described incidents that they said they presented to the team that investigated the allegations.
*One of the former students, Thor Gormley of Virginia Beach, said he and another student were in a Pittsburgh restaurant with Leonard. Leonard ordered whiskey sours for the two boys, then aged 17 and 18. The legal drinking age in Pennsylvania was 21.
"This led to other behavior which was under the guise of spiritual direction," Gormley said. After returning to their hotel room, Gormley said, Leonard claimed the 18-year-old was concerned about the size of his penis.
Leonard "had us take down our pants and underwear down to our knees and stand in front of a mirror. .*.*. [Leonard] commented on the size of our penises and testicles," Gormley said. "The thing that bothered me was the look on Leonard's face. It was perverted."
The other former student involved in the incident corroborated Gormley's statement.
Roberts, Leonard's attorney, said the written statement given to the team doesn't mention having drinks in a restaurant. Roberts also said the accounts of the allegation given by Gormley and the witness are different. The witness told Roberts in a phone interview, he said, that he didn't recall the incident. In an interview with a reporter, however, the witness said he later remembered it.
*Leonard asked a student to come to his bedroom and massage his back, another former student said. Leonard, wearing only underwear, told the student to stop whenever he became uncomfortable. The former student said he stopped at the top of the priest's buttocks.
Roberts said Leonard "very, very firmly" denied the allegation.
*In a third incident, Leonard allegedly wrestled with a student, wrapped his legs around the student and thrust his pelvis against him. At the same time, Leonard told the student he loved him and had to have him.
"I was able to get away from him and run out of the room," the former student said. "The next day I went to the rector. Father Leonard was already there. .*.*. Father Leonard said: 'You should have seen [this student] last night. I was playing and joking around with him. He was squealing like a pig. It was so funny.' It was never brought up again," said the former student, who was 16 at that time.
Roberts said the written version is different. He added that the priest who was rector at that time denied that "any such statement was made by any one of them."
Another allegation also was presented to the team, which Roberts also denied: About once a month over a four-year period, a student was given gin, told to relax, undress and lie down with a towel over his buttocks. Leonard massaged the student, who asked the priest to stop when he got near his groin.
Roberts said: "In its written form, the allegation did not read that way. Leonard said he never gave drinks to students and neither did the school."
In 1996, Leonard was cleared by church officials of wrongdoing in another allegation of sexual abuse after two witnesses denied the abuse happened.
Gormley, manager of a mortgage office, is adamant that Leonard's actions were inappropriate and that the diocese is minimizing the allegations because there was no genital touching.
Gormley and the man who corroborated his story said their confidentiality was violated during the investigation. Gormley had discussed his allegations with Caroluzza.
Gormley, who is studying to be an ordained deacon in a diocesan program directed by Leonard, said that when he attended a program meeting after making his allegations, everyone at the meeting knew about them.
The man who corroborated Gormley's story was a founding member and a leader at St. Michael who resigned within hours of Leonard's reinstatement. The man said Leonard "has been a good priest. He's helped so many people. For me the bottom line was, the incident happened. I had to tell the truth. .*.*. There are people who are totally unaware of what kind of man John Leonard is. They don't know his dark side."
The man added that Leonard had helped him a number of times. "My faith, my love of the church is because of John Leonard. .*.*. I'm here because he's lying and it's hurting me. He's telling people at my church I have a vendetta for him. .*.*. I want the truth. I thought these men were men of God."
Sullivan said this was not a cut-and-dried situation.
This was the first time procedures outlined in the diocesan regulations have been used, he said. "I think there has been some confusion. The investigative team should not have made recommendations. It's the panel who should have made the recommendations. By making recommendations, [the team] bypassed the role of the panel."
But the panel never saw the team's recommendations or report, several members said.
Sullivan said the diocese would look at the procedure in light of the policy adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last month in Dallas.
That policy bars priests who commit sexual abuse from parish work and all public ministry. It also allows bishops, acting on the advice of an advisory board made up mainly of lay people, to decide whether to oust abusive clergy from the priesthood. In addition, it requires bishops to report all allegations of abuse of minors to civil authorities.
"I think improvement can be made" in the diocesan regulations, Sullivan said. "It was a learning experience for all of us. Everyone was acting in good faith."
The 1998 Diocesan Regulations for the Response to Claims of Sexual Abuse of Minors states:
Sexual abuse is defined as any act which involves sexual molestation or sexual exploitation of a child for the gratification of an adult.
The Sexual Abuse Panel is to investigate allegations of child sexual abuse and provide recommendations as warranted.
The panel also is to review all investigations to ensure that the process is followed and to monitor the implementation of recommendations.
The panel chairperson appoints a team to investigate an accusation.
The team is to interview the alleged victim, the victim's family, the accused and all witnesses.
The team is to report in writing a summary of findings, a statement of whether reasonable cause exists to suspect that sexual abuse occurred and make recommendations.
Copies of the team's report are to go to the bishop and to the panel chairperson.
Panel members are to review the investigation team's finding.
The panel may direct the team to reopen an investigation or may order a new investigation.
The panel may develop an alternative recommendation for the bishop's consideration.
All documents and evidence obtained during an investigation are confidential and kept in the bishop's archives.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.