Priest's Return to Parish Questioned
Va. Cleric Accused of Sexual Abuse
By Caryle Murphy
July 19, 2002
When the Rev. John E. Leonard said Sunday Mass at St. Michael's Catholic Church in suburban Richmond in late June, overjoyed parishioners gave him a standing ovation. They were happy their pastor was back from a seven-week suspension after an investigation of allegations that he had sexually abused three boys 30 years ago.
What most of the congregation did not realize was that Leonard's bishop, Walter F. Sullivan of Richmond, had reinstated the priest without input from the diocesan panel whose job is to review sexual abuse complaints. Most members of the panel, in fact, have yet to see the findings of the diocese's investigation, which were sent directly to Sullivan.
The bishop's handling of the case has led one panel member -- a psychologist who was on the investigative team and co-wrote its report -- to resign in protest. Others on the review board have asked to meet with the bishop to discuss his decision to reinstate Leonard, and he has agreed to do so on Aug. 1.
Advocates for victims say the decision, which Sullivan announced four days after U.S. Catholic bishops adopted tougher guidelines on sexual abuse by priests, illustrates how difficult it will be to enforce the new rules.
The document approved by the bishops at their Dallas conference requires dismissal of any priest who has committed child sexual abuse, no matter how long ago. And it states that diocesan review boards should "assist the . . . bishop in assessing allegations and fitness for ministry" of priests.
The Richmond 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 preexisting policies," said David Clohessy, executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Victim support groups say the Richmond case also shows that the bishops' vote in Dallas has not ended the debate over what constitutes sexual abuse.
The Dallas document defines child sexual abuse as any act in which an adult uses a minor as an object of sexual gratification "whether or not this activity involves . . . genital or physical contact."
But the Richmond diocese has indicated that one reason for Leonard's reinstatement was that genital contact was not alleged by any of the three accusers. One of the alleged victims said that Leonard made him disrobe; another said the priest gave him back rubs; and the third said Leonard wrestled him to the ground and held him tightly.
Leonard, 63, who was also accused of sexual abuse in 1996, has denied all the allegations through his attorney, James C. Roberts.
Roberts said there were "a number of inconsistencies" in accounts of the alleged incidents. The bishop's investigation of the allegations, Roberts added, "was very thoroughly done."
Sullivan's spokesman, the Rev. Pasquale J. Apuzzo, said the bishop believed he was following diocesan guidelines. Apuzzo said Sullivan thought he had the review panel's input when he got the report of the investigating team, which the panel itself had set up.
"The sexual abuse panel is supposed to be interacting with its team throughout the investigative process," Apuzzo said. "There is no way in the world, according to the regulations, that the panel should have been ignorant of the findings."
But panel member Dennis O. Laing, a Richmond lawyer, said that as of yesterday most of the 10-member panel had not seen the investigating team's final report, delivered in early June to Sullivan and to the panel's chairman, Monsignor Robert M. Perkins.
"The panel's work, as far as I'm concerned, is incomplete," Laing said. "It's in the regulations that the panel is supposed to make sure that [the investigation] was done correctly and to make recommendations to the bishop."
As for reinstating Leonard, Apuzzo said Sullivan took into consideration not only the investigative team's report but also interviews with mental health professionals who evaluated the priest.
The diocese's sexual abuse panel, which includes four priests and six lay people, appointed two people to conduct the investigation of Leonard -- psychologist Therese M. May, who was on the panel, and Monsignor Thomas J. Caroluzza, who was not.
May said she resigned from the panel July 1 because "procedures were not followed. . . . The panel is supposed to oversee the investigation, so one would think they get the report and make recommendations to the bishop."
May said she found Leonard's accusers to be credible but declined to comment further on her team's findings, citing confidentiality rules.
The three accusers were students in the late 1960s and early 1970s at the now-closed St. John Vianney Seminary in Goochland, west of Richmond, a boarding high school for boys considering entering the priesthood. Leonard was at the school from 1970 to 1978, part of that time as principal.
Thor Gormley, 49, manager of a mortgage loan office in Virginia Beach, was the first to come forward, prompting Sullivan to suspend Leonard on May 6 because of what the bishop characterized as allegations "of inappropriate behavior and crossing boundaries."
Gormley said that in 1971, Leonard took him and another student on a trip to Pittsburgh. While in a hotel room, he asked them to drop their underpants before a mirror, Gormley said. He also said that on two or three occasions he gave back rubs to Leonard at the priest's request, while Leonard was dressed only in his underwear.
The other student on the Pittsburgh trip said he gave the diocese's investigating team a written statement confirming the mirror incident.
Leonard's second accuser, Bill Bryant, 47, vice president of a telecommunications company in Tucson, said that four or five times a year, Leonard gave him a back rub. He said the priest would bring it up, and "I would always say 'yes' in order to please him."
The third man agreed to be interviewed on the condition that he not be identified. He said that after a spiritual counseling session in Leonard's room, the priest locked the door, shut off the lights and "wrestled me to the ground and held me tightly. He was breathing really heavy saying, 'I love you. I love you. I want you. I want you.' He put his face into my neck."
On June 18, Sullivan issued a statement saying he had concluded that Leonard's removal from ministry was "unwarranted." The statement did not elaborate on why he had reached that conclusion.
A day later, another diocesan statement said that three accusers had complained "of incidents involving back rubs, questionable conversations, immodest dress or inappropriate contact, none of which involved genital touch or activity."
Leonard was accused of sexual abuse by another former student at St. John Vianney in 1996. The former student alleged that Leonard had groped his genitals and on other occasions persuaded him to engage in oral sex. The priest denied those allegations.
The diocese conducted an investigation at the time and concluded that the complaint was without substance.
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