Former Naples Priest Faces Criminal Probe in Miami

By Alan Scher Zagier
Naples Daily News [Naples FL]
September 9, 2003

William Romero, the former Naples priest accused of sexual misconduct at three parishes across South Florida, is under investigation by Miami prosecutors for possible criminal violations involving a 10-year-old altar boy.

"There is an open investigation on him," said David Maer, an assistant state attorney who handles sex crime prosecutions in Miami-Dade County.

Romero, 66, was sued in late June by a 38-year-old New York man who contends Romero raped him in 1975 inside an office at St. Augustine Catholic Church in Coral Gables.

Soon after that alleged encounter, Romero was sent to St. Ann Catholic School in Naples, where he was youth pastor and a catechism teacher for less than a year before yet another transfer his fourth in nine years.

At St. Ann, Romero used church rituals while molesting his victims in the church rectory, two former students have told the Daily News in firsthand accounts.

And two weeks ago, the former priest who resigned from the clergy earlier this year in the midst of an internal investigation by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Venice was sued by three siblings who alleged sexual abuse occurred while he served at St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church in Moore Haven from 1982 through 1989.

While at the church near Lake Okeechobee, Romero organized a weeklong boat trip from Palm Beach to Miami, according to the lawsuit filed by the two brothers and their sister. On that trip, Romero cavorted in the nude while his victims took photos of the priest; he also started molesting the girl, who was 11, the suit contends.

When West Palm Beach attorney Jason Weisser went to prosecutors with the complaint, he said he was told that the legal statute of limitations prevented a prosecution of the decades-old abuse.

Under state law, sex abuse charges involving victims who are minors but older than 12 generally must be filed within three years after the abuse took place or three years after the victim turns 16. If the perpetrator is a coach, teacher, priest or other such authority figure, an extra year is tacked onto the statute of limitations period because the crime becomes a first-degree felony.

The only exception is if the victims were younger than 12 years old at the time and the abuse involved sexual penetration. In those instances, there is no statute of limitations.

Those are just some of the hurdles cited by Southwest Florida prosecutors when it comes to possible sexual abuse by Romero and other priests named by the Venice diocese as potential predators.

"Generally, someone files a complaint with the sheriff or police department and they investigate," said Steve Maresca, Collier County's sex crimes prosecutor. "That's how the process generally works."

A woman in the State Attorney's Office in Martin County offered a similar explanation Monday when asked about Romero, who met the three siblings he's accused of abusing while counseling their divorced mother at a Hobe Sound church. The Martin County office isn't looking into his case, she said.

Spurred by victims' groups and public attention to the nationwide priest sex abuse scandal, some state lawmakers wanted to close the loopholes regarding the statute of limitations for civil complaints, which must be filed by age 25 or within four years after discovering "that psychological injury or other illness ... was caused by abuse."

The proposal which didn't address the statute of limitations for criminal charges was defeated in the most recent legislative session in Tallahassee.

Maer, the Miami prosecutor, declined to discuss the specifics of the Romero investigation.

But attorney Ron Weil, who represents the former Coral Gables altar boy, said he was contacted by Maer not the other way around after the lawsuit was made public.

Experts say that many victims of childhood sex abuse repress their memories of the trauma for years, often recognizing the damage only later in life through psychological counseling.

Romero, who lives in LaBelle, couldn't be reached for comment Monday. He has strongly denied the accusations in previous interviews, blaming a nationwide witch hunt on priests that he said was driven by "false memory" and a desire to "collect money."

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

By his own admission, Romero faced at least two previous accusations of sexual misconduct in Miami earlier in his career. 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 in Naples after the father of a 12-year-old boy accused him of molesting the man's son, which he denied.

Romero also acknowledged being sent to a Rhode Island treatment center specializing in sexual disorders among clergy members one year after arriving at St. Ann's. Doctors there gave him a clean bill of health, he said.

Romero isn't the only party his alleged victims want to hold accountable.

Also named in at least one of the legal complaints are the Archdiocese of Miami and Archbishop John C. Favarola, as well as the Venice diocese and Bishop John Nevins.

The accusation in a civil complaint involves engaging "in a pattern of criminal conduct designed to conceal the sexual exploitation of children by their clergy." In other words, Weil said, church officials in both Miami and Venice knowingly shipped an abuser from one parish to the next.

"There was too much going on for the church not to be aware of," he said.


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