Priest, 80, Suspended over Decades-Old Sex Claim

By John Murawski
Palm Beach Post (Florida)
February 7, 2003

An 80-year-old Catholic priest in Delray Beach is being haunted by long-documented allegations that he had sexual relations with teenage girls in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Rev. Richard G. Johnson had admitted to three of four accusations decades ago, but was allowed to continue to serve as a priest, according to his personnel file from the Boston Archdiocese.

But under strict rules enacted last year in the wake of massive sex scandals that rocked the Catholic Church, the Diocese of Palm Beach suspended Johnson Tuesday on a recommendation from the Boston Archdiocese.

The beleaguered archdiocese is investigating for the second time an allegation that Johnson conducted a 1 1/2-year relationship with a 15-year-old parishioner he was tutoring in Latin. The woman now lives in Florida and blames Johnson for continuing emotional troubles, according to church records.

But a lawyer representing 240 people with claims against the Boston Archdiocese said Johnson's background includes a pattern of such allegations. None of the allegations was made known to Palm Beach diocesan authorities when the priest was recommended for work here.

"You have allegations involving four girls at three different parishes, and each time there was a similar response: a parish transfer," said Roderick MacLeish Jr., a lawyer at the firm in Boston that's suing the archdiocese.

In a now-familiar scenario, the Boston Archdiocese wrote a favorable recommendation in 1998 to support Johnson's application to work at the Emmanuel Catholic Church in Delray Beach. The letter from then-archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law, provided by Mac- Leish, said: "I am unaware of anything in his background which would render him unsuitable to work with minors."

Johnson, a Delray Beach resident who was ordained in 1947 and retired from the Boston area in 1997, has been working part-time from December through April at Emmanuel since 2001, said Palm Beach diocesan spokesman Sam Barbaro.

As of Thursday, Palm Beach diocesan officials did not know the details of the allegation that prompted Johnson's suspension, Barbaro said.

"In compliance with the 'zero tolerance policy,' the wishes of his home Diocese of Boston, and our Diocese of Palm Beach, he has been asked to step down until the situation is cleared," said the Rev. James Fiore of Emmanuel.

Neither Fiore nor Johnson could be reached for comment Thursday.

The sexual allegations against Johnson surfaced this week when the Boston Archdiocese handed over personnel records to Mac- Leish.

Johnson admitted he had relations with three girls but denied the allegations by the 15-year-old, who later moved to Florida.

"Fr. J. is very much frightened as to what might happen - he is terrified that he might be sent to a monastery," according to a 1957 archdiocese report in Johnson's personnel file.

"Fr. J. cannot be helped by psychiatric treatment because he does not want to be helped," the report states. "He was told emphatically by Dr. Mc. not to see either girl again but he persists."

According to the report, Johnson, then 24, took at least one of the teenage girls "parking." Johnson described it as a "flirtation."

"The situation has dynamite," the report says, because one of the girls was telling others about her involvement with the priest. Complicating matters was that one of the girls was suffering from schizophrenia. "And while it is true that her statements probably will be discounted because she is mentally ill, the tragedy is . . . that they are true. Fr. J. has admitted such."

Nearly four decades later, the matter was still being discussed in Johnson's personnel file.

"In the early years after ordination, he was reported to the Archdiocese for being emotionally and physically involved with two young women whom he had sent to a psychiatrist for counseling," the 1994 report said. "He reports the young ladies as becoming enamored with him."

The 1957 report said that, before his involvement with these two girls, "Johnson was involved with a girl while he was a curate." But, the report said, "inasmuch as Fr. J never told this to anyone except to (a psychiatrist), the doctor insisted that this must not be revealed." In 1994, Johnson's alleged 15-year-old victim lodged her claim, three decades after the fact and impossible for church officials to verify.

"He was shocked by the allegations. He said they were not true," according to a 1994 church report. "He said that her accusations boggle his mind."

"No conclusion was arrived at because of the difference between the allegations and Johnson's response," the report concludes.

Church officials began to have doubts about Johnson's denials, memos show, but they were unable to verify what really happened in 1963. The fact that there were no complaints about Johnson in 30 years helped extend his career.

"How to make him see that if anything ever happened he is a goner," a 1994 Boston Archdiocese memo said. "The worst thing that can happen is if someone else came forward and made a similar allegation. If so, he would have to be asked to leave the parish."


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