Ex-Priest at Ft. Lauderdale School

By Jay Weaver
Miami Herald [Florida]
April 25, 2007

A former priest who retired from a Fort Lauderdale Catholic high school in December amid questions about his alleged involvement in past sex-abuse incidents has been retained by the school as a consultant through the end of the academic year.

A group of St. Thomas Aquinas High School parents expressed "tremendous concern" about Ernest Durante, 68, of Hollywood in a letter sent Wednesday to the Archdiocese of Miami. The former guidance counselor has been training another school counselor on administering SAT, Advanced Placement and other exams on the campus.

The letter, unsigned by the parents, urged Archbishop John Favalora to remove Durante from the school.

The Archdiocese of Miami, which owns St. Thomas, confirmed that the former priest has been working as a consultant, saying he is present on campus only during after-school hours and has had no regular contact with students.

"I have been periodically going back to help train a female counselor. There's no involvement with students," Durante told The Miami Herald.

"I don't counsel students. I don't talk to students unless a situation arises. A student could see me or ask me a question about testing."

"The school has never told me anybody has complained," Durante said. "No student has ever questioned me."

Durante had been identified in a 2005 Philadelphia grand-jury report on Catholic clergymen accused of sexually abusing children.

Durante was not charged with any crime, but the report said he "sometimes watched" as a fellow priest sexually abused a 14-year-old male student in 1967 at a Catholic high school in Philadelphia.

The grand-jury report said Durante and the colleague, the Rev. John Schmeer, took the boy to homes they shared in the Philadelphia area and the New Jersey Shore, where they gave him Playboy magazines and introduced him to a teenage girl.

It spotlighted one incident where Durante and Schmeer went swimming in the deep end of a seminary pool where Schmeer took off the boy's bathing suit and fondled him.

"[T]he priest ... was rubbing up against the boy," according to the report released in 2005 by the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office. "Father Ernest Durante was in the pool, watching."

An archdiocese spokeswoman said top church officials did not know Durante was retained as a consultant by St. Thomas until a reporter brought it to her attention on Wednesday.

"This was a decision made at the school," said archdiocese spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta, adding that she confirmed Durante's work as a consultant through St. Thomas' principal, Tina Jones.

"He's not on the grounds during the day. He's there after school hours," she said. "He's meeting with his replacement. He's not dealing with students at all."

Archdiocese officials had not seen the St. Thomas parents' letter, she said.

Durante — who left the priesthood in 1987 to get married and was a guidance counselor at St. Thomas Aquinas for 10 years before his retirement in December — told The Miami Herald that he never sexually abused anyone during his long career as a Catholic school educator in Philadelphia or South Florida.

"I'm totally innocent," Durante said.

"I never saw Father Schmeer do anything. I never watched anything."

Schmeer has since been removed from the ministry.

Durante said he reluctantly retired from St. Thomas in mid-December because he didn't want the school "caught in the middle of a controversy."

Durante asked St. Thomas to accept his request to retire "due to personal reasons" and the school did so by placing the announcement on its web page — thanking him for "his years of faithful service."

The announcement noted that Durante "has denied these allegations" stemming from his tenure as a priest in Philadelphia and that "no charges were ever brought against him."

The Miami archdiocese said it knew of no sexual-abuse complaints filed against Durante as a guidance counselor at the Fort Lauderdale school, adding that he cleared two background checks by the FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia determined that the boy's sex-abuse allegations against Schmeer, dating back to 1967, were "not credible," but the Philadelphia grand jury identified Schmeer among 63 priests accused of sexual abuse in a lengthy report.

The panel did not fully investigate Durante because he had left the priesthood nearly two decades ago, prosecutors said.

Last fall, a Philadelphia woman contacted St. Thomas Aquinas after recognizing Durante in a photo on the school's web page.

Nancy Green, who says Durante taught her religion at a Catholic high school in Philadelphia in 1977, said she learned about his past on a website called "I would be frightened to know that a man with such a questionable history had access to my children," said Green, a mother of three, in an e-mail to St. Thomas officials.

"I would imagine that the parents at St. Thomas Aquinas would feel the same."

The school's principal, Jones, responded in an e-mail, extending thanks for her "concern for our students and future students."

Jones attached a letter that said: "There is no reason to believe he has been implicated in the abuse scandal except by his working association with another priest [Schmeer]."



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