Sex Abuse Claim Shakes Diocese of Venice

By Anine Zeitlin
The News-Press

December 30, 2008

The Diocese of Venice put out a public call Monday for potential victims to step forward in the wake of a sexual-abuse allegation against the Rev. Jean Ronald

Joseph, a priest who served in Fort Myers in the 1990s.

Bishop Frank J. Dewane announced the sexual misconduct accusation involving a minor in 1993 at weekend Masses at St. Frances Xavier Catholic Church, where Joseph once led Haitian ministries.

“The Diocese of Venice remains committed to a zero tolerance policy for sexual abuse with a minor,” the statement read.

Adela Gonzales White, a diocese spokeswoman, said she had no further information about the allegation or the priest’s time in Fort Myers. She was not aware of others coming forward with allegations.

Mireille St. Pierre, owner of Lakay Se Lakay, an immigration and tax service business in Fort Myers, said two of her children were involved in a youth group run by Joseph in the 1990s.

“I’m shocked at this allegation, and my son and daughter would be shocked,” St. Pierre said. “For me, personally, my kids never said he did anything suspicious. ... I never heard anyone say one bad thing about him.”

St. Pierre said Joseph organized a trip for Southwest Florida youth, including her children, to visit an orphanage on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, impoverished Haiti’s capital.

The diocese statement encouraged people to call church officials, law enforcement or any other organization, and stressed that Joseph — who’s now at St. Bernard Catholic Church in Holmes Beach, just south of Tampa — “strenuously maintains his innocence.”

It asked that the community remain united in prayer while noting “these are very painful times for Father Joseph, the lay faithful as well as the clergy.”

This is the second sexual abuse allegation that has publicly surfaced in Fort Myers since August. A former Bishop Verot High School priest, the Rev. Dennis Killion, was accused of sexual abuse while at an all-boys school in the 1980s.

David Clohessy, director of the national Chicago-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, was not surprised by the frequency of cases connected to Southwest Florida.

“Sadly, I wish Fort Myers were unique,” he said. “Sometimes the courage of one victim does inspire other victims to come forward.”

Clohessy urged the Diocese of Venice to release more information to the public — including the age and gender of the minor involved — to quash speculation.

“If there is a rumor the victim is a girl, then parents of boys may not discuss this with boys,” Clohessy said.



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