Former St. Ann's Priest Faces More Sexual Abuse Charges

By Alan Scher Zagier
Naples Daily News [Naples FL]
August 30, 2003

A former Catholic school teacher sent to a Rhode Island treatment center for pedophile priests after suddenly leaving Naples now stands accused of systematic sexual abuse of three siblings at another church in the Venice diocese.

The lawsuit was filed Friday in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court against the former St. Ann youth pastor, William Romero, who retired from the active clergy several years ago. He resigned from the priesthood earlier this year amid a lengthy diocese investigation of abuse allegations in Naples, Miami and now Moore Haven.

The latest charges involve a family Romero befriended in 1979 four years after he left the Old Naples church under a cloud while pastor of St. Christopher's Parish in Hobe Sound, which straddles the Palm Beach-Martin County border.

Romero took a special interest in a woman who sought his counsel for marital difficulties, said West Palm Beach attorney Jason Weisser, who represents the woman's three children.

Despite church teachings to the contrary, Romero ultimately encouraged the woman to divorce her husband, said Weisser and then exploited the new domestic arrangement by starting his own sexual relationship with the woman.

In 1982, Romero was transferred from St. Christopher's to St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church in Moore Haven, a farming town on the shores of Lake Okeechobee.

After moving to Moore Haven, Romero continued to visit the family on the east coast at least once a week and on holidays, according to the lawsuit. From 1983 through 1985, the three children who are identified in the suit only by their initials to protect their privacy lived with the priest in the summer.

During this time, the suit alleges, Romero's "behavior toward the children changed from father figure to molester."

He started taking weekly showers with the 9-year-old girl, walked around the house naked as he did daily chores, and forced the children to shed their clothes, the complaint contends.

Romero regularly had sex with the girl's two brothers, whose ages are not included in the lawsuit, according to the complaint. However, Weisser said his now-adult clients' ages range from 30 to 39, meaning the siblings were between 9 and 18 at the time the sexual abuse is alleged to have begun.

He said that the abuse ceased seven years later, in 1989 when the victims were between 16 and 25 though he didn't specify if each of his clients were abused until that date.

In 1984, Romero organized a weeklong boat trip from Palm Beach to Miami with the three siblings and seven other minors. It was on this trip that his sexual abuse of the girl, now 11, commenced, Weisser said.

While the three victims have struggled to come to terms with their mistreatment and repressed many memories, at least one aspect of the boating trip is well-documented, according to the suit:

A photography buff, Romero had his youthful passengers take his picture as he cooked by a stove, floated on a raft, and windsurfed all while naked. He also forced the 11-year-old girl to go topless for much of the trip and took nude photos of her brothers in front of the other boys.

All the time, said Weisser, Romero said his actions had the blessings of Christ, whom he nicknamed "Buddy Boy."

By his own admission, Romero, who is now 66, faced at least two previous accusations of sexual misconduct earlier in his career in Miami, where he was ordained in the mid-1960s.

In an interview with the Daily News last year, he acknowledged being the subject of a paternity suit in a case he said was dropped when the girl who accused him gave birth to a black child. Romero is white.

In another case, while chaplain for Miami's juvenile court in the late 1960s, Romero was accused of attempted rape and stabbing a girl in the breast, he previously said. According to Romero, the girl's father admitted to the crime and was sent to prison.

In that same 2002 interview, Romero said he left St. Ann's after the father of a 12-year-old boy accused him of molesting the man's son, which he denied. He also acknowledged being sent to the Rhode Island treatment center but said its doctors gave him a clean bill of health.

Those previous charges as well as an accusation of raping a 10-year-old altar boy in Miami in 1975, a complaint aired in a separate civil suit filed two months ago demonstrate a clear pattern of misconduct that couldn't conceivably have escaped the notice of church leaders, said Weisser.

"This is a situation that never should have occurred," he said at a Friday afternoon press conference. "They were sweeping the problems under the rug, and they were transferring the problem to other churches."

Naples attorney Ted Zelman, who represents a former St. Ann student reportedly abused by Romero, has said he, too, plans to file suit.

In addition to Romero, the lawsuit names as defendants the Archdiocese of Miami and its leader, Archbishop John Favarola; the Moore Haven church; and the Diocese of Venice and its head, Bishop John Nevins.

Officials at the Miami archdiocese and the Venice diocese, which covers Catholic churches in Collier, Lee, Sarasota and seven other Southwest Florida counties, did not immediately return calls seeking comment. Nor did Romero, who now lives in rural LaBelle, east of Fort Myers.

The Miami archdiocese was named as a defendant because Romero was transferred to Hobe Sound from parishes in Miami and Broward County, Weisser said. At the time, the Martin County church which is now part of the Palm Beach diocese was a part of the Miami archdiocese.

In 1984, the Diocese of Venice was created out of the larger Miami archdiocese to address growth in Southwest Florida. Nevins, a priest and auxiliary bishop in Miami, was tapped to lead the new diocese.

The suit outlines 29 charges against Romero, the two bishops, the dioceses and the Moore Haven church, from battery and negligence to breach of fiduciary duty and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The first 17 counts each seek a judgment in excess of $15,000.

Although Weisser's clients have sought anonymity, the court could compel the three siblings to publicly disclose their names as a judge has in another priest sex abuse case in Palm Beach County.

But since church officials already know his clients' names as part of a preliminary inquiry, the only purpose behind such a request would be to further intimidate and embarrass the victims, Weisser said.

"For them to come forward ... and say they need to know the identities now is disingenuous and serves no real purpose," he said.

Despite the multiple accusations, Romero continues to work with minors as a host parent for foreign exchange students living in his LaBelle home.

Two such students from Germany told Weisser that they, too, were abused by Romero while living with him in Moore Haven, the attorney said.

"The pattern of abuse is almost identical," Weisser said, referring to Romero's reported reliance on church ritual to justify the mistreatment. "This is his modus operandi."

When reports of his troubles as a priest surfaced last year, a California-based exchange program removed two students from Romero's home. But the former priest continues to host foreign students on his own, he said in a June interview with the Daily News.

He also defended his reputation, blaming the accusations on a nationwide witch hunt for predator priests.

"I guess it's just one of the hazards of working with youth," he said. "I can give you a million people who would speak good of me.

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