Virginia Priest Spared Jail, Gets Probation for Decades-Old Assaults

By Zinie Chen Sampson
Associated Press, carried in The Virginian-Pilot [Goochland VA]
March 31, 2004

GOOCHLAND — A Roman Catholic priest convicted of assaulting two teenage boys in the 1970s was sentenced Tuesday to a suspended jail term and probation.

Under a plea agreement, the Rev. John E. Leonard received two consecutive 12-month jail terms, which were suspended, and was placed on life long probation.

Leonard, who resigned from his duties in January, declined to make a statement. He was sentenced on the misdemeanor counts by Goochland County Circuit Judge Timothy K. Sanner.

Five priests in the Richmond diocese have resigned or been expelled from the ministry in connection with child sexual abuse accusations since the summer of 2002, when public allegations of abusive clergy first surfaced in the Richmond diocese.

Leonard, 65, originally was charged with three felony sex offenses, involving two students in 1971 and 1974. He was convicted of two charges of assault and battery in January after entering an Alford plea, in which he didn’t admit guilt but acknowledged that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict him.

The agreement also required Leonard to undergo a psychosexual evaluation before sentencing. Based on the results of that assessment, Sanner ordered Leonard to enter psychological treatment.

The two former students alleged that Leonard sexually abused them at St. John Vianney Seminary, a Catholic boys’ boarding school in Goochland. Leonard was a faculty member and principal at the school, which closed in 1978.

Leonard also was principal of Catholic High School in Norfolk for five years, leaving in 1992.

At the time he was convicted, Leonard was pastor of St. Michael Catholic Church in Henrico County, which he founded in the early 1990s. He resigned Jan. 15 after officials from the Diocese of Richmond diocese placed him on administrative leave.

About 100 supporters were at the courthouse for Leonard’s sentencing, greeting his arrival with a song and his departure with applause.

“I believe in Father John,” said Lana Phares, a parishioner. “We are here to show our love and faith for him.” But Goochland Commonwealth’s Attorney Edward K. Carpenter said he believed those who said they had been abused by Leonard.

“I felt like he was a repeat offender and, if possible, it would be better to address this now rather than be sorry later,” Carpenter said Tuesday afternoon.

Bill Bryant, who was among several former Vianney students interviewed during Carpenter’s investigation, said he was pleased that Leonard was ordered to get counseling.

But Bryant, who lives in Arizona, said he remained disappointed that diocesan officials never apologized to him and others who claim they were abused.

“To my way of thinking, the diocese has not taken responsibility for this, nor have they made any attempt to make amends to the victims,” Bryant said.

Bruce Jeter, one of the plaintiffs in the Leonard case, could not be reached for comment.

Jeter filed a civil suit against Leonard, former Bishop Walter F. Sullivan and the diocese in Virginia Beach Circuit Court last fall, seeking $5.3 million in damages.

Stephen C. Swain, Jeter’s attorney, said Leonard’s conviction and sentencing would strengthen the civil case against him .

“It is an indication, or at least a recognition, that something has occurred that was wrong,” Swain said. “A guilty plea is an admission that can be used at trial in a civil case.”

The diocese investigated Leonard in 1996 and in 2002 after receiving abuse complaints and cleared the priest both times.

A diocesan sexual abuse panel launched another investigation after Leonard’s conviction in January. That probe is continuing, a diocese spokesman said.