Church Faults Accuser in Abuse Suit
The Archdiocese of Miami Expressed Sympathy toward a Youth Allegedly Abused by the Rev. Neil Doherty. Now Church Leaders Blame the Youth in Response to His Lawsuit.
By Jay Weaver jweaver@MiamiHerald.com
February 5, 2006
CHARGED: The Rev. Neil Doherty is the first Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Miami to be charged with sexual battery on a child younger than 12.
When a Catholic priest was arrested on charges of raping a Broward County youth, the Archdiocese of Miami extended "pastoral concern" and "prayers" for the alleged victim and his family.
But four days after the Jan. 26 arrest of the Rev. Neil Doherty, the archdiocese took a decidedly less sympathetic position.
Church leaders, in response to the youth's sexual-abuse lawsuit, said "his own negligence" was to blame for what the priest allegedly did to him as a 10-year-old.
In the suit, the youth claims the former pastor of St. Vincent Catholic Church in Margate repeatedly sedated and sodomized him almost a decade ago.
The youth, now 19, is not Doherty's only alleged victim. Since the late 1970s, eight other minors have complained that the 62-year-old priest slipped sedatives into their drinks and raped them while they were unconscious, according to civil, criminal and archdiocese records.
The criminal case against Doherty is significant because he represents the first Catholic priest in the archdiocese to be charged with sexual battery on a child younger than 12. Now retired, he served parishes in South Florida for three decades.
Since the sex-abuse scandal erupted in the Catholic Church in 2002, the Miami archdiocese has publicly expressed sorrow for the alleged abuse victims of numerous South Florida priests.
But in the civil case involving the Margate youth, archdiocese officials have pursued an aggressive strategy against him and his family.
In a prepared statement released Friday, the Miami archdiocese did not respond to a question on why officials said the youth's "own negligence" caused his alleged sexual abuse by the priest.
"We don't discuss or address specific questions regarding active litigation, and the statement addresses the issues brought up by [The Miami Herald]," archdiocese spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta said. "We will discuss this in the appropriate forum, which is the judicial system."
Victims' advocates say such hardball defense tactics were commonplace before the Catholic Church's clergy scandal grabbed the nation's attention four years ago in Boston. Intense public outrage forced bishops to drop the strategy.
"But as the media's attention to the story has waned, bishops are going back to their earlier intimidation tactics," said David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, citing other recent civil cases across the country.
In Miami, where the Miami archdiocese has settled upward of 40 sex-abuse suits for millions of dollars since 2002, church officials have rarely accused an alleged victim of causing his own harm at the hands of a priest.
Miami attorney Jeffrey Herman, who has represented alleged victims in more than two dozen abuse cases against the archdiocese, called its latest legal maneuver "mind-boggling."
"The archdiocese keeps telling the public that they have reformed their ways, but behind the scenes it appears to be business as usual," said Herman, who represents the Margate youth. "This kind of stuff is so hurtful to the victim and his family."
In the archdiocese's Jan. 30 response to the Margate youth's suit, church officials say his "alleged damages were caused in whole or in part by his own negligence and should be reduced and/or extinguished accordingly."
They go on to say the archdiocese cannot be held liable for Doherty's "alleged pattern of behavior" because they had been unaware of it before the youth filed suit in September.
To make their point, church officials cited another sex-abuse suit in which the alleged victim waited until last August to bring his allegation against Doherty to their attention. That other youth claims Doherty sexually assaulted him in the late 1960s.
"It is true: If [the other child] had come forward when the alleged abuse had occurred [in 1967], when the named priest [Doherty] was a seminarian, the church would have acted upon such complaints," Agosta, the spokeswoman, said in the archdiocese's statement.
The Miami archdiocese's own records tell a different story. Church leaders, in fact, had received three sex-abuse complaints against Doherty during the past three decades -- including one parent's letter addressed to the late Archbishop Edward McCarthy that led to a financial settlement in 1994, two years before Doherty allegedly began abusing the Margate youth.
Moreover, Archbishop John C. Favalora placed Doherty and other priests suspected of sexually abusing children on administrative leave in spring 2002.
Then the following year, a former student at St. Anthony Catholic Church in Fort Lauderdale accused Doherty in a lawsuit of doping him with prescription drugs and raping him more than a dozen times in 1976 when he was 12 years old -- including one time in the priest's mother's home.
The archdiocese's past knowledge of at least three abuse accusations against Doherty first surfaced publicly in a 2003 memorandum by the Broward State Attorney's Office.
In that memo, a sex-crimes prosecutor disclosed that the Miami archdiocese reached a $50,000 settlement in 1994 with a student who accused Doherty of sexually assaulting him about two decades earlier when he was enrolled at Chaminade High School in Hollywood.
Broward prosecutor Dennis Siegel cited a letter addressed in August 1992 to the late Archbishop McCarthy in which the student's parents accused the priest of giving their son "Quaaludes in excess" and then raping him.
McCarthy ordered an investigation, which included a mental-health evaluation of Doherty, according to archdiocese records. McCarthy's top aide, the late Monsignor Gerard LaCerra, wrote a letter to the evaluator in Connecticut, disclosing that the archdiocese knew of two previous allegations of sexual misconduct by Doherty.
The mental-health evaluator recommended that the archdiocese suspend Doherty from his duties pending further investigation. Instead, records show, LaCerra wrote the evaluator again, saying that neither he nor the archdiocese's attorney 'gave much credence to the parents' story" of abuse.
The archdiocese then confidentially settled with the student's family.
Agosta said it was the archdiocese's policy, starting in the mid-1980s, to conduct some type of investigation into allegations of sexual abuse by a priest. But she said she didn't know the outcome of any internal investigations into Doherty's conduct.
"None of the decision-makers are present anymore" because they're deceased, she said, adding she didn't know why archdiocese officials kept Doherty in active ministry.
In April 2002, Doherty was placed on administrative leave and left his post as St. Vincent's pastor. He formally retired from the archdiocese two years later.
He was arrested Jan. 26 at an Extended Stay Hotel in Fort Lauderdale and was denied bond the following day. Broward Sheriff's deputies charged him with two counts of sexual battery on a child under 12, two counts of indecent assault and one count of lewd or lascivious molestation.
The charges stemmed from a BSO investigation in which detectives found four victims -- three boys and one adult male -- who all told chillingly similar stories about their assaults, according to a criminal complaint.
Doherty and his family have contacted Broward criminal defense lawyer, David Bogenschutz, to represent the priest. The attorney declined to comment.
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