Lawyer Concludes Church Leaders Used SW Florida As 'Dumping Ground'

By Alan Scher Zagier
Naples Daily News [Naples FL]
April 28, 2003

Like other spiritual leaders across the country, Bishop John J. Nevins returned from a landmark meeting in Dallas last summer vowing to rid all wayward priests from the ranks of Southwest Florida's Roman Catholic parishes.

"The bishops have promised to deal decisively with members of the clergy ... who sexually abuse minors," he said. "The Catholic faithful must be assured of the Church's commitment to protecting all those entrusted to our care, to ensuring that no one who has abused a child in the past, present or future is permitted to continue in ministry."

But 17 years earlier, Nevins agreed to accept a Kentucky priest - whom he likely knew had admitted to molesting a 15-year-old boy- to lead a Lee County congregation, according to documents released in a series of lawsuits filed in Louisville.

Diocese of Venice records show that the Rev. Thomas P. Creagh, who is now 60, served at St. Andrew's Catholic Church in Cape Coral from July 1985 through June 1986, followed by a six-month stint at St. Rafael Catholic Church in Englewood. The Venice diocese oversees more than 50 churches in Collier, Lee, Charlotte, Sarasota and six other counties in Southwest Florida.

Two years before Creagh was sent to Lee County, he reached a confidential settlement that paid $20,000 to the 15-year-old's family, the Archdiocese of Louisville has acknowledged. That same victim - along with four others - is now suing Creagh on sexual abuse charges spanning from 1983 to 1997. The disclosure has prompted calls for the Louisville archbishop's resignation.

In a July 15, 1985, letter to Louisville Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly, Nevins sought advice from his colleague on how to best handle Creagh's previous misconduct. While the letter doesn't explicitly identify Creagh as a known sex abuser, it repeatedly links the newly arrived priest to a topic the nation's bishops were just starting to openly acknowledge.

"My main concern about present and future problems discussed by the bishops is the much-needed documentation for personnel files on any treatment that was offered, accepted and completed on behalf of an individual priest," Nevins wrote. "If Thomas P. Creagh had received treatment, would it be possible to have a statement for our files?"

"It would benefit us to have supporting evidence regarding the emotional health of any priest who has been charged or accused of immoral actions," Nevins continued.

He added, "I have the strange feeling that the past of some priests may continue to haunt them."

Diocese spokeswoman Gail McGrath declined, on Nevins' behalf, to discuss Creagh's past, citing personnel confidentiality rules. Asked if the bishop knew about Creagh's background before his arrival in Southwest Florida, McGrath said church officials learned the full scope of the charges when a Louisville newspaper inquired about Creagh in May 2002, after he was publicly accused of sex abuse in Kentucky.

The Diocese of Venice responded by posting notices in the two parishes where Creagh served, asking anyone who knew of misconduct by the priest to come forward. No one did, said McGrath, who declined a Daily News request to provide copies of the notice to parishioners.

"I don't see any point in that," she said. "This is old news as far as we're concerned."

Creagh, who now lives in Sarasota and sells real estate, declined comment. After his brief stint in Southwest Florida, he returned to the Louisville archdiocese in early 1987, remaining a parish priest until he was removed from active ministry by Kelly after the new accusations surfaced.

Before leaving the Sunshine State, Creagh underwent a psychological assessment at the House of Affirmation in Clearwater, billed as an "international therapeutic center for clergy." The assessment, which was made available to attorneys suing the Louisville archdiocese, gave Creagh a clean bill of health but made no mention of sexual abuse charges.

A copy of the medical report in the court file is addressed to Creagh and Archbishop Kelly in Kentucky, but not to Nevins.

Since widespread reports of sex abuse by Catholic priests surfaced last year, the Diocese of Venice has investigated abuse reports against three retired priests with local ties. At least two other Catholic priests and one Episcopal priest who served in Lee and Collier counties were previously removed from the ministry for sexual misconduct.

One of the recently accused, Donald Baier, formerly of San Marco Catholic Church on Marco Island, was removed from active ministry in July 2002 once abuse charges were substantiated. The misconduct took place in the 1970s while Baier worked in the St. Petersburg area, diocese officials have said.

The Rev. William Romero, a priest and youth group leader at St. Ann Catholic School in Naples from 1975 to 1976, recently asked the Vatican "for a dispensation from all obligations connected with the priesthood" while facing a yearlong probe by the diocese. Several former St. Ann students have accused Romero of sexual abuse that incorporated church rituals and sacraments, charges he has denied in previous interviews with the Daily News.

Another retired priest remains under investigation pending the findings of an internal diocesean review board. The Rev. Neil Flemming was pastor at St. William Catholic Church in Naples from 1982 to 1991, working next at churches in Sarasota and Cape Coral - the same church where Creagh served - before his 2000 retirement. Flemming was a friend and adviser to Nevins who worked as diocesan treasurer until his suspension.

Ted Zelman, a Naples attorney representing a former St. Ann student who has charged Romero with abuse, said his work on the case has led to a troubling conclusion: Catholic leaders in Miami used Southwest Florida as a "dumping ground," sending their troubled priests to the other side of the state before the Diocese of Venice was created in 1984.

"This is the end of the road," he said. "If you couldn't make it somewhere else, you could go here."

"If it was being controlled by the Archdiocese of Miami, where are they going to put their better people, where are they going to put their weaker people?" said Zelman, who added he plans to soon file a lawsuit against the Diocese of Venice and Romero.

Romero, who retired from the priesthood several years ago and now lives in LaBelle, came to Naples after stops at three churches over eight years in Miami, Boca Raton and Coral Gables. Nevins also worked in the Miami archdiocese, most recently as an auxiliary bishop, before being tapped to lead the new diocese in 1984.

According to the Diocese of Venice's Web site, guidelines to address allegations of sexual abuse of minors were adopted in 1986. A "more thorough, comprehensive policy" was enacted in 1995.

In addition to calling for the ouster of any priest who engaged in sexual misconduct with a minor, the policy includes "an intensive screening process" that requires priests seeking assignment to the Venice diocese to never have been suspended or disciplined by their previous dioceses; to not have behavioral problems "that would indicate he might deal with minors in an inappropriate manner"; to never have been involved in an incident that called into question his ability to fulfill his priestly ministry "due to alcohol, substance abuse, violation of celibacy, sexual impropriety, physical abuse or financial impropriety"; to possess "no adverse mental, moral, emotional or physical condition"; and to not have undergone professional counseling.

Under those standards, Creagh would never have been allowed to set foot into St. Andrew's.


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