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  Priest Quits after His Assault Conviction
Rev. Leonard Had Been Placed on Leave by Diocesan Leader

By Steven G. Vegh
Virginian-Pilot(Norfolk, Va.)
January 16, 2004

A Catholic priest who had been accused of sexually abusing boys in the 1970s abruptly resigned Thursday.

The Rev. John E. Leonard, 65, had proclaimed his innocence throughout two church investigations and a criminal probe. His resignation ends both his role as pastor of St. Michael Catholic Church in Henrico County and his career as a priest in active ministry. He remains an ordained Catholic clergyman.

Leonard acted after being put on leave Thursday by Cardinal William Keeler, who is temporarily heading the Diocese of Richmond.

The resignation came two days after Leonard was convicted in a Goochland court of misdemeanor assault under an Alford plea that let him avoid a trial on felony sex charges. Leonard did not admit guilt, but acknowledged that prosecutors had enough evidence of abuse to convince a jury he was guilty if the case was tried.

Following his conviction, the diocesan Review Board that investigates alleged abuse by clergy began examining the accusations against Leonard. Church regulations require that priests under Board scrutiny go on leave until the investigation is done and the head of the diocese has ruled on the priest's fate.

The Rev. Pasquale E. Apuzzo, spokesman for the Richmond diocese, said Leonard resigned without giving any explanation.

"I wouldn't be able to get inside his mind and answer what has changed for him," Apuzzo said.

Despite his conviction, a resignation seemed the last thing on Leonard's mind in a letter he sent to parishioners after his criminal hearing on Tuesday.

"We need to put this devastating chapter behind us as I continue as pastor of St. Michael's," Leonard said in the letter, which was posted on the church's Web site.

Leonard said he accepted the plea bargain only after showing it to diocesan officials.

"The Diocese has reviewed it carefully and has determined that this plea in no way constitutes a violation of nor grounds for dismissal," he wrote. "Confirming this, was a significant factor in my decision to concede to this plea."

In a press release Wednesday, Bishop Emeritus Walter F. Sullivan, who cleared Leonard of abuse allegations in 1996 and 2002, stressed that the court did not convict Leonard of sexual abuse.

Sullivan retired as head of the Richmond diocese last fall. Keeler, who is the archbishop of Baltimore, took over as interim administrator.

Keeler put Leonard on leave as "a necessary step to ensure a safe environment for children," said Sean Caine, communications director for the archdiocese.

Caine would not discuss details of the Leonard case, but said Keeler's decision followed the charter adopted by U.S. Catholic bishops in 2002 for preventing abuse and disciplining abusive priests.

"It's a decision that's consistent with the charter and the cardinal's actions in similar cases here involving credible allegations of abuse against minors by clergy," Caine said.

Bruce Jeter, a Norfolk man who told the diocese in 1996 that he was abused by Leonard as a schoolboy, said he believed Leonard would not have resigned if Sullivan was still in charge of the diocese.

"Sullivan's retired, but he's been Leonard's biggest supporter," said Jeter, who filed a $5.3 million civil lawsuit in October against Sullivan, Leonard and the diocese. The bishop cleared Leonard of wrongdoing after a diocesan investigation concluded Jeter's complaint wasn't credible.

Like Jeter, Thor Gormley was a student in the 1970s at St. John Vianney Seminary, a Catholic boys' boarding school in Goochland where Leonard was the principal and a teacher. The school closed in 1978.

Gormley, who lives on the Eastern Shore, told the diocese in May 2002 that he had been abused by Leonard while a student.

Two diocesan investigators determined that the abuse complaints by Gormley and several more former Vianney students were credible. But Sullivan, who put Leonard on leave during the probe, ruled that no abuse had occurred and reinstated Leonard at St. Michael.

Gormley said Thursday that the diocese' attitude toward sexual abuse may be different now that Keeler is in charge.

Last year, Keeler publicly identified more than 50 priests and religious brothers in the Baltimore archdiocese who had been accused of child abuse and posted their names on the Web. Sullivan refused to do the same for priests serving in the Richmond diocese.

"We have an interim head of diocese who is clearly not going to just sit by, who will take an active role in dealing with sexual abuse in our diocese," Gormley said.

Despite Leonard's resignation, Apuzzo said the Review Board will continue to examine abuse accusations against the priest. The board will follow the U.S. bishops' charter, which did not exist at the time a previous diocesan Sex Abuse Panel began investigating Leonard in the spring of 2002.

 
 

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