Goochland Priest Is Convicted of Assault/ Future of Ministry Yet to Be Decided by Catholic Officials/
By Steven G. Vegh
January 14, 2004
A Catholic priest who twice was cleared of sexual-abuse allegations by diocesan officials was convicted in a Goochland court Tuesday of misdemeanor assault and battery against two teenage boys at a boarding school in the 1970s.
The Rev. John E. Leonard, 65, accepted a plea agreement in which prosecutors reduced their initial felony charges of attempted forcible sodomy, forcible oral sodomy and abduction with intent to defile.
In exchange, Leonard entered an Alford plea in which he refused to admit wrongdoing but agreed that, based on the prosecutors' evidence, he might be found guilty if the felony case went to trial.
Goochland Circuit Court Judge Timothy J. Sanner scheduled Leonard's sentencing on the assault charges for March 30. Prosecutors have recommended two suspended 12-month jail sentences and lifelong probation.
Sanner also ordered Leonard to undergo a "psychosexual" evaluation to determine whether the priest is a danger to the community as a sexual abuser.
Goochland Commonwealth Attorney Edward K. Carpenter said he felt compelled to accept the plea agreement because many of the incidents described by victims occurred so long ago that the statute of limitations for prosecution had expired.
Inconsistencies in some witness statements also complicated the state's case.
Leonard, the priest at St. Michael Catholic Church in Henrico County, refused to comment after his conviction.
Bruce Jeter, one of the men whose accusations triggered the criminal investigation, praised Carpenter's prosecution of the case.
"There's a part of me that's relieved, and a part of me that still hasn't seen justice," said Jeter, who lives in Norfolk. "He got the truth out, even though the sentencing was for lesser charges." Jeter did not attend the hearing.
Jeter went public in August 2002 with his accusations against Leonard, saying the priest drugged and sexually assaulted him in 1974, when Jeter was a student at St. John Vianney Seminary in Goochland. Leonard was a teacher and principal at the Catholic boys high school, which closed in 1978.
A civil suit filed in October by Jeter against Leonard, Bishop Walter F. Sullivan and the diocese is pending in Virginia Beach Circuit Court. The suit seeks $5.3 million in damages.
The Rev. Pasquale J. Apuzzo, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, said information about Leonard's conviction and plea agreement will be forwarded today to the diocesan Review Board that investigates alleged sexual abuse by clergy.
Apuzzo said he hoped the board would complete its examination of the case within a week and make a recommendation to Cardinal William Keeler, who is the interim administrator of the diocese. Keeler has the ultimate authority to decide Leonard's future as a priest.
Apuzzo said the priest will remain at St. Michael's parish pending Keeler's decision and that Leonard would have been summarily expelled from the ministry if he had been convicted of sexual abuse.
Carpenter opened his criminal investigation of Leonard in August 2002 after receiving complaints from men who said the priest abused them as students at Vianney.
In court Tuesday, Carpenter said he and criminal investigators interviewed six men who gave compelling testimony about sexual abuse by Leonard. "We, as an investigative body, believed the victims," he said.
Carpenter ultimately filed charges against Leonard based on accounts by two accusers. One said Leonard tried to sodomize him in the spring of 1971. The second said that in the spring of 1974, Leonard performed oral sex on him and tried to force him to commit the same act.
Jeter reported abuse by Leonard to the diocese in 1996. Sullivan, who headed the Richmond diocese until retiring last fall, investigated that complaint and cleared Leonard, saying a witness Jeter named did not corroborate the accusation. Leonard also denied the accusation.
Allegations of sexual misconduct by Leonard resurfaced in May 2002, when another former Vianney student told the diocese he had been abused.
Sullivan put Leonard on leave pending the results of a diocesan investigation.
"There is no room in the priesthood for anyone who abuses the young," Leonard told his congregation at the time. "I am innocent."
The investigative team also interviewed several men who gave personal accounts of abuse by Leonard when they were Vianney students.
In its report, the team declared that those witnesses were believable and that Leonard was not. It recommended that Leonard be removed from parish duty to receive extended inpatient psychological treatment.
Instead, Sullivan, who made his own inquiries in the case, said he found no evidence that the Leonard case involved "deviance" or pedophilia. He restored Leonard to the pulpit at St. Michael in June 2002.
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