Diocese Takes Witness off Job
A Secretary at a Margate Church -- a Key Witness in a Criminal Case against a Priest Charged with Molestation -- Has Been Placed on Leave by the Archdiocese of Miami

By Amy Sherman
Miami Herald [Florida]
August 1, 2006

A longtime secretary at a Margate church who told investigators that the Archdiocese of Miami knew for decades about allegations that a parish priest had been abusing young boys was placed on leave by the Archdiocese Monday. An Archdiocese spokesman says it placed Theresa Gerstner on paid leave because of "irregularities" in finances at St. Vincent Catholic Church and her failure to cooperate with an audit.

But the 59-year-old secretary, who has worked at the church at 6350 NW 18th St. in Margate for 20 years, says the move is payback for her statements to investigators -- a charge the archdiocese denies.

"The legal term would be retaliation," said Gerstner's attorney, Mark Vieth, who describes his client as a religious woman who attends church daily. "She has given a lot of her life to this church. . . . It seems obvious the actions of the diocese as to Theresa Gerstner are related to her recent testimony to the state attorney."

Gerstner denied the allegations that she misspent church money. "I feel betrayed," said Gerstner, who lives in Boca Raton. I've been a loyal employee."

In July, The Miami Herald reported that Gerstner's statement revealed for the first time that someone within the archdiocese knew that church leaders were aware of the allegations against the Rev. Neil Doherty for years.

Prosecutors will likely use Gerstner's statements in the criminal case against the 63-year-old priest who was charged earlier this year with sexually abusing a young boy starting in the 1990s.

But archdiocese spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta said that officials had advised Gerstner from the start of the criminal investigation involving Doherty to cooperate with prosecutors. Agosta denied that placing Gerstner on leave was related to her statements in Doherty's case. "We see this as absolutely a separate event," Agosta said.

Documents released by the Broward state attorney's office last month showed that in 1992 the archdiocese sent Doherty to Connecticut for psychological testing.

The results indicated Doherty should be removed as a parish priest "because he is dangerous, manipulative, a pathological liar and he is someone that will stop at nothing to get what he wants," Gerstner told investigators. But he stayed at the church until April 2002.

In July, the archdiocese settled six sexual abuse civil cases for $750,000, including two involving males who alleged Doherty drugged and raped them in the 1970s.

The Miami Herald reported Gerstner's involvement in the criminal probe nine days ago, after the release of new court documents.

But in a press release, the archdiocese said it placed Gerstner on leave as a result of a two-year study of financial records which showed "inappropriate spending of parish funds" by Gerstner.

"In the course of reviewing this information with the employee, her cooperation has been inadequate and, therefore, in an abundance of caution, she has been relieved of her duties with pay while the forensic investigation is completed," the statement reads.

The archdiocese declined to provide more details.

The investigation grew out of a routine audit that started about two years ago, Agosta said. During the past month, the auditor raised questions about parish spending. But when the auditor asked Gerstner for clarification of some expenses, she failed to provide documentation, Agosta said.

Agosta wouldn't comment on the amount of money or what sort of expenses were being questioned.

Gerstner said she has devoted 20 years to the church where she is responsible for managing the office and cleaning the chapel.

"After the hurricane when the maintenance man was let go, I was even there chopping trees down," she said.

Gerstner said the Rev. Joseph Maroor, the church's current priest, was aware of all her purchases and approved them. She said she uses a work credit card to order office and maintenance supplies, flowers for the church and gifts for volunteers.

Also, Maroor allowed her to use the credit card for personal expenses as long as she paid them with her own money, Gerstner said.

Gerstner said there are no written policies about what she needs to provide receipts or invoices for so she saves them only for expenses over $500 and otherwise gets verbal permission from Maroor.

Gerstner said she has cooperated with the investigation but doesn't have receipts for some items such as toilet paper or cleaning supplies.

"Whatever their auditor asked of me -- I gave him," she said.


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