Ex-fort Myers Priest Says He Did Not Abuse Boy

The News-Press
January 18, 2009

Will address accusations in public forum Wednesday

A priest accused of molesting a boy when the clergyman served at St. Francis Xavier Church in Fort Myers 15 years ago is denying the allegations, which became public last month.

The denial was first published in The Islander, a community newspaper on Anna Maria Island in Manatee County.

The Rev. Jean Ronald Joseph, 44, and his Bradenton attorney John P. Fleck say they had honored the Diocese of Venice's request the allegation and details of the investigation be kept confidential.

But they say the diocese broke the confidentiality agreement, providing priests with a letter from the Most Rev. Frank J. Dewane, bishop of the Diocese of Venice, to read at Mass on Dec. 27-28, and then releasing a statement to the media Dec. 29.

"This process is supposed to be confidential," Fleck said. "This was supposed to remain confidential within the church itself. ... It was in all the news media. ... For whatever reason, the church decided to release that information."

Now, Joseph, who most recently served at St. Bernard Catholic Church in Holmes Beach, said he wants the opportunity to address the accusations in a public forum scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Wednesday at Holmes Beach City Hall in Manatee County.

Joseph, who removed himself from active ministry during the inquiry at the request of the bishop, said he learned about the letter and statement from news reports.

Joseph said he could not imagine how wrongs can be righted and his reputation repaired.

"How can it be? When someone stops me in Sam's (Club) and says, 'You are the one.'"

A 31-year-old man, who is named John Doe in the report, made the accusation, according to an Aug. 9 letter from him. Fleck and Joseph provided the letter to the media.

Doe worked as a teacher and athletic director for a school in the diocese, but the school said he no longer works there.

The alleged victim sent the letter to the diocese.

Doe wrote that he has known Joseph for more than 15 years and they met while Joseph was a deacon in Port Charlotte.

Doe said he was a member of a youth group Joseph established in the area's Haitian community, and the priest sometimes "invited males from the youth group to spend the night with him at his rectory or designated sleep area after he became a priest."

The letter continued, "The male youth felt very comfortable with this because of the trust factor that was there."

Doe claimed the sexual misconduct took place while Joseph was in Fort Myers. He said he was invited "for a sleepover at the rectory" and "invited to go alone."

Joseph said the incident - and the sleepovers - never took place.

Joseph said he knows Doe and mentored him as a young man. He also said his family and Doe's family are close.

"I helped him out in the past," Joseph said. "He was a troubled kid. ... I met (Doe) a few months before I was ordained."

Doe wrote years passed and he did not report the incident because "I was too scared, embarrassed and felt shameful."

Joseph said he saw Doe as recently as last May, when Joseph took flowers to Doe's mother. Joseph and Doe spoke, joked and shook hands.

After informing Joseph of the allegation in late August, the diocese wanted him to fly to a clinic, St. Luke Institute in Silver Springs, Md., for what Joseph said he believed would be a consultation.

Joseph arranged to leave Bradenton for as long as three weeks. But when he arrived at the airport, he said, he learned the diocese canceled his ticket.

The diocese then asked Joseph to leave for the center on Sept. 6.

That trip, however, never took place.

Joseph said he learned the Catholic church sends clergy to the institute for treatment. Joseph said when patients arrive, they are given labels to wear on their chest, tags such as "child abuser."

Fleck, in a Sept. 4 letter, notified the diocese Joseph would not be "participating in any psychological testing and/or psychological treatment."

Joseph expressed feeling conflicted over following the orders of the church and wishes of his shepherds, and advice of his attorney and his understanding of his rights.

"I will own my evaluation," Joseph said. "I will not sign over my rights. No. Not in America."

Joseph offered to submit to a polygraph examination, which to date the church has not requested.

"It hasn't been ruled out," said Adela Gonzales White, communications director at the Diocese of Venice. "But the validity of a polygraph test often doesn't stand up."

On Sept. 29, a review board met at the Catholic Center in Venice over the allegation. The board separately heard from Joseph and Doe, but Fleck said attorneys were not permitted to comment.

A Sept. 18, letter from diocese attorney Frederick A Higham Jr. notified Fleck and Joseph of the board meeting. "The review board meeting is not a formal administrative proceeding. ... It is a confidential process and we ask that all parties maintain and respect that confidentiality."

On Sept. 30, Higham wrote to Fleck, "The review board has requested additional investigation be done prior to reaching a recommendation. I anticipate that will be concluded and presented to the review board within the next three weeks. I will inform you of the recommendation when I receive it."

Fleck, on Jan. 8, said the Sept. 30 letter was the last word to him from the diocese's attorney.

When asked recently if this was still true, White of the diocese said the investigation is ongoing and it would be inappropriate to discuss the case.


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