Diocese Suspends Cleric Accused of Molestation

By Peter Franceschina
Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL)
February 7, 2003

A Boston cleric who spent winters in Delray Beach and served at Emmanuel Catholic Church has had his rights to perform priestly duties suspended by the Catholic Diocese of Palm Beach after diocesan officials learned of accusations he molested a 15-year-old girl and had sexual relationships with adult women in the past.

The diocese was alerted to the allegations Tuesday by Boston reporters, who had received files on the Rev. Richard G. Johnson that were made public as part of a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Boston. Diocese of Palm Beach spokesman Sam Barbaro said Thursday that local church officials immediately suspended his "faculties" -- his right to celebrate Mass and perform the sacraments.

Johnson, 80, was a visiting priest who spent his winter months in Delray Beach and lived at Emmanuel during his time here, Barbaro said. Johnson was suspended from ministering here in keeping with the new sexual-abuse policy adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in November, Barbaro said.

"He will not be allowed to function in our diocese," he said.

Johnson could not be reached for comment.

On Thursday evening, a number of parishioners at the church, 15700 Military Trail, declined to comment on the allegations against Johnson or said they thought the newspaper was not the place to address the issue.

The diocese has been stung before by priests with hidden pasts. At least nine other priests who were the subject of prior sexual-misconduct allegations have served in the diocese.

Files from the lawsuit show that Johnson retired from the Boston archdiocese in 1997 and that in January 1998 Cardinal Bernard Law certified to Palm Beach church officials that Johnson was in good standing. The letter from Law recommending that Johnson be granted priestly duties in the Diocese of Palm Beach says that Johnson is a priest of "good character and reputation."

The letter mentioned no sexual misconduct allegations against Johnson, which surfaced in the 1950s.

"I am unaware of anything in his background which would render him unsuitable to work with minors," Law wrote.

Barbaro said it was possible Johnson began serving in the diocese as a visiting priest in 1998, but he was not granted faculties until 2001, when local church officials requested and received a letter from Boston church officials stating he was a priest in good standing.

"If he was here from '98, he may have just been vacationing. There was nothing official," Barbaro said, adding that Johnson stayed at Emmanuel from December to April during the years he helped out there. He said Johnson no longer is residing at the church or living in the diocese.

Any disciplinary action against Johnson would have to originate with Boston church officials, he said.

The Rev. James Fiore, pastor of Emmanuel, will read a statement to parishioners during weekend services to inform them of the allegations against Johnson, Barbaro said. Fiore will tell parishioners the suspension is in keeping with the national sexual abuse policy until the matter is investigated.

"We thank him for his faithful service to our parish," Fiore's statement says. "We also ask that you pray for those who make allegations, those who have been abused and all priests, especially Father Johnson. Keep him in your prayers."


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