Former Naples, Cape Coral Priests Sued on Sex Abuse Charges by Ex-Orphan Ward

By Alan Scher Zagier
Naples Daily News [Naples FL]
January 23, 2004

A former Naples priest who was recently removed from the clergy after sexual misconduct charges now faces a civil lawsuit in Miami filed by a former teen orphan.

Neil Flemming, 72, was pastor of St. William Catholic Church on Seagate Drive from 1982 to 1991 before moving to other assignments in Southwest Florida. He retired in 2000 but continued to work as treasurer for the Diocese of Venice until sex abuse allegations surfaced in May 2002.

Earlier this month, Venice Bishop John Nevins permanently removed his one-time confidant from the public priesthood, even though Flemming denied the allegations.

On Tuesday, a Broward County attorney sued Flemming and his younger brother James also a priest on behalf of a 48-year-old man who claims the pair made him their "personal sex servant" while he lived at Boystown, a Miami-area orphanage, more than 30 years ago.

The abuse began in 1969, when the unnamed victim was 14 and Neil Flemming told the teen he needed a sperm sample because one of the boy's testicles had not descended. Neil Flemming then performed oral sex on the youth, according to the complaint.

The abuse lasted for several years, said attorney Jeffrey Herman, and escalated when Jim Flemming started working as a tutor for the victim, who had a learning disability. Seventeen years later, the younger Flemming joined his brother in the priesthood.

Neither of the accused clergymen could be reached for comment Thursday. Both have relocated to Homosassa in Citrus County, north of St. Petersburg.

Calls to Jim Flemming's cell phone were not immediately returned, and a secretary at St. Andrew Parish in Cape Coral said that Pastor Jim Flemming, who succeeded his brother Neil at the Cape Coral parish, was "on sabbatical."

Diocese of Venice spokeswoman Gail McGrath said that she didn't think Jim Flemming's sudden departure from his parish was related to the newly publicized allegations, noting that he left several months ago.

But a July 7, 2003, letter from the diocese to Herman's client states that a diocese review board "found your allegations to be credible. However, the investigation was not able to produce any corroborating evidence to support your allegations against Father Jim Flemming.

"The review board unanimously concluded the circumstantial evidence presented was not sufficient to substantiate the allegations for Father Jim Flemming to be removed from ministry," concludes the letter, which Herman made available to the Daily News.

Herman called that explanation contradictory.

"When you have credible allegations, you have no business keeping these guys as priests," he said. "(Jim Flemming) could be out of town with another church somewhere where they have no idea."

In announcing the sanctions against Neil Flemming, the diocese said he denied the allegations but did not dispute a decision by the bishop to rescind his public clerical duties. The Diocese of Venice oversees more than 50 parishes in 10 Southwest Florida counties, including Collier, Lee and Sarasota.

Neil Flemming's dismissal marked the third recent case in which a retired diocese priest with Naples ties was punished after sexual abuse charges.

In July 2002, Donald Baier, a former pastor at San Marco Catholic Church, was removed from the priesthood after a diocese investigation found credible evidence supporting abuse on his part while Baier worked in the St. Petersburg area three decades earlier.

And last year, William Romero resigned from the priesthood in the midst of a diocese investigation. Romero, a former youth pastor and catechism teacher at St. Ann Catholic Church in Old Naples, still faces three civil lawsuits stemming from his work at parishes in Naples, Miami and Glades County.

The suit filed this week by Herman which names the Archdiocese of Miami and Boystown of Florida Inc. as defendants is the second recent civil complaint against the Miami-area orphanage.

Herman said his client has been severely traumatized by the abuse and repressed memories of his mistreatment by the Flemming brothers until a spate of publicity over similar cases in Boston and across the country in 2002 helped revive that trauma.

The victim wound up running away from the orphanage to live on the streets of Miami and later struggled with alcohol, drug abuse and intimacy problems, his attorney said in an interview.

"He couldn't trust anyone," Herman said.