Church Clears Gibbons Official
First Finding by Sex-Abuse Panel
By Donna Gehrke-White and Jasmine Kripalani
December 4, 2002
A new South Florida panel that reviews sexual abuse complaints against Catholic priests has issued its first public findings, exonerating the former principal of Fort Lauderdale's Cardinal Gibbons High School of a complaint from the mid-1970s.
Miami Archbishop John C. Favalora announced the findings Tuesday at a school assembly -- with students giving a "spontaneous standing ovation" upon hearing that Favalora was restoring the Rev. Joseph Kershner's ministerial duties, said acting principal Paul Ott.
The review board, he added, "dug into this every which way and concluded the charges were unsubstantiated."
But the assembly was bittersweet: Kershner, 75, is retiring because of health problems and Ott fears the aging priest will be forever tainted from the accusations -- even with Tuesday's public exoneration.
The allegations are "absolutely not true," yet, Ott added, "this is where a few words can sully someone's reputation."
An emotional Kershner told students at Tuesday's assembly that he had wanted to be a priest since fourth grade and had not broken any of his priestly vows. Ott said it had been an emotional day for Kershner and that he wasn't able to speak to a reporter.
The new review procedure set up in the wake of the sex scandals rocking the Catholic church is insufficient in the eyes of some critics. Under Miami's setup, deliberations take place in private. Tuesday's news release announcing the resolution of the Kershner complaint provided scant details about the basis of the board's conclusion.
"They may base their decision for all we know on a few pieces of paper in a file or on a monsignor," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). He said the boards are "reminiscent of 1950s Communist Russia. I don't see how any Catholic lay person or survivor can believe in a group like that."
But Archdiocese spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta said the review board had done "as thorough an investigation as they possibly could."
The board members don't want their identities disclosed, because they don't want to be bothered by the news media, she added.
In March, a former student at Cardinal Gibbons from 1972 to 1976 told the Broward State Attorney's Office that Kershner had slid his hands down the back of his pants on several occasions.
Assistant State Attorney Dennis Siegel wrote in a memo in August that he couldn't prosecute the now grown man's claims because the statute of limitations had long since run out. But he found that the credibility of the charge was supported by similar allegations made by other former students.
On Tuesday, Siegel said he had "some concern" whether the board had been able to talk to the right people.
"I have no idea who they spoke to, what information they received or how they made their decision -- so without knowing that I really have no comment," Siegel added.
After school let out Tuesday afternoon, Gibbons' students and parents defended Kershner.
"I was glad he was found innocent because he was part of the family," said freshman Philip Lynch, 14.
"I don't think it was fair that for seven months he was stressed. It must have been hard on him."
Added another freshman, 14-year-old Joey Ranalli: "I don't really think he did anything wrong."
His mother, Tina Ranalli, said she was glad that Kershner had been exonerated. She said she worried the charges had been blown out of proportion, adding, "football players pat each other on the butt all the time."
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