Child sex abuse report in Pennsylvania names priests with ties to SW Florida

By Melanie Payne And Ryan Mills
Naples Daily News
August 16, 2018

A grand jury's report on sexual abuse by hundreds of Catholic priests in Pennsylvania is expected to be released later Tuesday.
Photo by Claudio Reyes

[with video]

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that the Rev. Sean Kerins does not live in Naples. He lives in Erie, Pennsylvania, and has family in Southwest Florida.

Three priests with ties to Fort Myers, Naples and Port Charlotte were named in a Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing child sexual abuse by priests.

The three are among the more than 300 — including at least 16 with ties to Florida — who the report states were perpetrators, are being investigated for possible sexual misconduct or were involved in a cover-up of the scandal.

The report, released Tuesday, names the Rev. Robert J. Brague, who once served at St. Ann in Naples, the Rev. Timothy Sperber, who lives in Port Charlotte, and the Rev. Thomas M. O'Donnell, who lives in the Fort Myers area, as priests who engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior with minors but were protected by the Catholic Church.

The grand jury report also names the Rev. Sean Kerins, in one of three cases under investigation by law enforcement officers. The grand jury report indicates Kerins, 28, lives in Naples. However, his sister who lives in the Naples area said her brother still lives in Erie, Pennsylvania, and only visited family in Southwest Florida for a few weeks earlier this year. The Diocese of Erie also said Friday their records show he lives there.

According to news reports, Kerins was placed on permanent leave by the Diocese of Erie after officials said they learned he had sent a series of inappropriate text messages to a student at Kennedy Catholic High School.

He is presumed innocent unless proved otherwise, according to the report.

O'Donnell, 84, was ordained in 1960 and assigned to 11 churches in Pennsylvania over the next 58 years. In 1988, parents complained that he was requiring their sons who were participating in basketball to get weighed while naked. According to the report, O'Donnell was told to "disassociate himself from supervision of the athletic programs."  

From 1988 until mid-March 2002, parents continued to complain about O'Donnell's inappropriate behavior with their children, including sleeping with boys, making them undress in front of him and requiring them to shower with him. One parent said O'Donnell asked her son to wash his dog. 

"O'Donnell insisted that her son get completely naked" while performing the task, the report states. 

In May, O'Donnell wrote to Pennsylvania Senior Deputy Attorney General Daniel Dye to dispute the accusations of sexual misconduct.

"At no time did I ever touch a boy or any child," he wrote. "There has been no child who has made an accusation against me that I touched him." 

He added that he has "not been involved in any basketball programs for 30 years," can no longer walk well and uses a mobility scooter to get around.

O'Donnell has lived in the Fort Myers area for more than 10 years, he said when reached at his home in the St. John XXIII Villas senior housing community near Daniels Parkway and Interstate 75. When asked whether the accounts were true, O'Donnell replied that the "charges were unsubstantiated. There was no proof that it happened."

The Rev. Robert J. Brague, who had a short stint as parochial vicar at St. Ann Catholic Church in Naples in the early 1990s, was accused of impregnating a 17-year-old girl in Pennsylvania in 1988, among other suspected affairs, according to the grand jury report. He was in his mid- to late 40s at the time.

The bishop in Pennsylvania covered up Brague’s case to prevent “greater scandal through undue publicity,” according to the report.

In 1989, Brague was kicked out of the Diocese of Scranton, but the bishop “wholeheartedly approved” of Brague continuing in the priesthood with the Diocese of Venice in Southwest Florida, according to the report. In January 1990, Brague was appointed parochial vicar of St. Ann in Naples.

He died in December 1997 in Sarasota after living there for six years, according to online obituaries. He was 56.

The Diocese of Venice did not answer questions Thursday about what Brague's duties were at St. Ann and whether they involved working with children or teens. 

"The Diocese is not aware, nor was it ever informed, of any abuse allegations" against Brague, the Diocese wrote in a prepared statement.

The grand jury report also includes the case of the Rev. Timothy Sperber, who was accused of sexually assaulting a young girl in the late 1970s at St. Joan of Arc School in Hershey, Pennsylvania. When the girl told the school's principal about the abuse, the principal scolded her and called her a "demon child," according to the report.

Sperber transferred to Florida in 1992 and worked at churches in Plantation and Pembroke Pines, the report states. He was suspended in 2000 for failing to appear for an assignment. 

Sperber, 69, now lives in Port Charlotte, in Charlotte County. When reached on the phone Thursday, he declined to comment and referred questions to his lawyer. Attempts to reach Sperber's lawyer by phone and email were unsuccessful. 

Two other priests with ties to the Diocese of Venice also were included in the grand jury report.

Rev. Robert E. Spangenberg, who sexually abused at least two children, was reassigned to a retirement home in Sarasota in 1989. He worked there for about a year before leaving Florida. He returned to the Sarasota area in 2002, retired in 2003 and died in 2006 at age 59, according to the report.

The Rev. Raymond R. Rhoden, who retired to the Sarasota area, was accused of and admitted to sexually assaulting a teenage boy in the late 1970s in the Pittsburgh area. He died in November 2006, according to an online obituary. He did not work for the church in Florida, and the Diocese of Venice said it had no knowledge of him.

In its statement, the Diocese of Venice called the sexual abuse of children unacceptable, particularly by clergy. It said it works to prevent abuse with a zero-tolerance policy.

"The ways in which many of these crimes and sins were addressed have caused enormous pain, anger and confusion," the statement reads, asking for prayers for the victims. "The perpetrators of these inhumane crimes are to be held responsible for their actions." 

The Pennsylvania grand jury compiled information in the report during a two-year investigation. Some of the accused have died, and statutes of limitations prevent many others from facing criminal charges.

More than 1,000 young victims were identifiable from the church's own records, the report says.

It is the latest in a series of sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church for decades.

Tim Lennon, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said people should not rely on the church to provide the information they need to protect their families from predatory priests. There is a history of systematic abuse and cover-ups in the church that is not unique to Pennsylvania.

He encouraged more state attorneys general to start investigations, and urged prosecutors to vigorously go after child abusers.

"There is a responsibility of the church to be transparent, and it is the responsibility of the people of Florida to ensure the safety of their children," he said. "That means they need to take action."


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