Catholic Priest Indicted on Sodomy Charges

Associated Press State & Local Wire
August 20, 2002

A Catholic priest was indicted Tuesday on four counts of sodomizing a teenage boy 20 years ago, authorities announced Tuesday.

The indictment against the Rev. John P. Blankenship, 65, comes as the Catholic Diocese of Richmond is being buffeted by allegations that it mishandled other cases of sexual abuse by its priests, and as another of its priests is being investigated by authorities in Goochland County.

The diocese announced Aug. 9 that it had removed Blankenship as Catholic chaplain at the Federal Correctional Institution in Petersburg and from active ministry. Blankenship had served as a priest in the Richmond diocese since his ordination in 1963.

The diocese said that in 1982, while he was pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Prince George County, Blankenship sexually abused a 14-year-old male. Bishop Walter Sullivan learned of the abuse in 1988 and put Blankenship on administrative leave, requiring him to receive psychiatric treatment at Saint Luke's Institute in Silver Spring, Md., the diocese said.

Authorities began investigating the case when the victim, now 34, contacted the county prosecutor on July 12 with allegations that he was molested by Blankenship, Prince George police Lt. Bill King told a news conference.

"The reason he came forth is because he thought this priest had been maneuvering his way back to working with children," King said.

The victim, who lives out of state but still has family in the area, had been told that Blankenship might have been assigned to a parish in Hopewell. King said investigators still weren't sure whether that was the case.

The victim and his family often would help with cleaning duties and other chores around the Church of the Sacred Heart and the parish home, officials said. He has requested to remain anonymous until trial, when he will come to Virginia to testify, King said.

Commonwealth's Attorney H. Martin Robertson called the county grand jury back into session on Tuesday to hear the evidence.

Chief of Police Edward Frankenstein said Blankenship was not at his Richmond home and that police were told he was visiting friends in an unknown location.

King, who is heading the investigation, said arrangements were being made with Blankenship's lawyer for the priest to turn himself in.

King said prosecutors have strong case, which includes documents dating to the 1980s supporting the allegations against Blankenship.

The Rev. Pasquale J. Apuzzo, a spokesman for the diocese and secretary to Sullivan, said of the indictment, "We had no idea this was coming."

Apuzzo said the bishop had not talked to Blankenship since his forced retirement and the priest then had discussed traveling or taking a vacation. "We don't know where he is."

Blankenship served as Catholic chaplain at the federal prison in Petersburg for 19 years. According to the diocese, Sullivan allowed him to continue in that role "because he would have no direct contact with minors."

Blankenship had also served at Sacred Heart Church in Winchester; St. Agnes, Arlington; St. Mary Star of the Sea, Fort Monroe; St. Mary, Richmond; and St. John, Highland Springs. Winchester and Arlington later became part of the Diocese of Arlington.

King said officials know of no other possible victims.

The diocese said that Blankenship told the bishop he "was sincerely remorseful and had apologized years ago to the victim." Blankenship paid for the victim's college education and counseling, the diocese said.

Authorities in Goochland County, meanwhile, are investigating the Rev. John E. Leonard, who was accused of abusing former seminary students in the 1970s.

Leonard was removed from St. Michael Catholic Church in suburban Richmond for about six weeks this year while a team investigated sexual abuse allegations by four former students at St. John Vianney Seminary. The Goochland County seminary closed in 1978.

Bishop Sullivan reinstated Leonard in mid-June. Soon after, a fifth person came forward alleging sexual abuse by Leonard. Authorities in Goochland opened their investigation Aug. 12 at the behest of two of Leonard's accusers.

Five members of the Diocesan Sexual Abuse Panel also have resigned, denouncing Sullivan for failing to consider their input in the Leonard case. The remaining members are four priests and an employee of the diocese.


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