Despite Pleas, Priest Insists He's Innocent/ Leonard Says He Doesn't Face Dismissal, but Diocese Says Panel Will Review Case

By Alberta Lindsey
Richmond Times Dispatch (Virginia)
January 15, 2004

Even though he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and battery against two teenage boys, the Rev. John E. Leonard insists he is innocent of any sexual misconduct.

"I realize that it is difficult to understand why someone would plead guilty to anything if he/she did nothing wrong ... I run the risk that some will see my decision as an admission that I did what was alleged. That is simply not the case," Leonard wrote in a letter to parishioners at St. Michael Catholic Church in Glen Allen, where he is the founding pastor.

The priest was charged Tuesday in Goochland County Circuit Court with three felony sex offenses. Judge Timothy K. Sanner accepted a plea agreement that allowed Leonard to plead guilty to a pair of reduced charges of assault and battery.

The felony charges alleged forcible oral sodomy and attempted forcible sodomy. A third felony charge of abduction with intent to defile was dropped.

The case stems from complaints filed with Goochland authorities about incidents that occurred about 30 years ago when the two teens were enrolled at St. John Vianney Seminary, then a diocesan high school for boys contemplating entering the priesthood. Leonard was a faculty member at the school, which closed in 1978.

There is a difference of opinion between the Diocese of Richmond and Leonard about his future.

In a statement yesterday, the Most Rev. Walter F. Sullivan, bishop emeritus of the diocese, said the diocesan sexual-review board "will review all the information and make any final recommendations they might have to offer."

Through a spokesman, Cardinal William Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore, who is governing the Richmond diocese until a new bishop is named, echoed Sullivan's statement.

However, Leonard's letter to his parishioners, dated Tuesday, said the plea agreement had been reviewed by the Richmond diocese and "in no way constitutes a violation of nor grounds for dismissal under either the diocesan or [U.S. church] guidelines. Confirming this was a significant factor in my decision to concede to this plea."

In response to questions, the Rev. Pat Apuzzo, spokesman for the diocese, said Leonard was aware before he wrote his letter that the matter "is going before the review board for a recommendation and that Bishop Sullivan and Cardinal Keeler are consulting over the matter."

Apuzzo added that when Goochland authorities began their investigation in August 2002, Sullivan asked the diocesan sexual-review board to become familiar with the matter in case he needed to come back to them for a recommendation. At that time, Sullivan turned over to the sexual-review board all information gathered by a previous review panel and by Sullivan himself, Apuzzo said.

A copy of the plea agreement was sent to members of the review board yesterday, Apuzzo said. "We are also attempting to get hold of the court transcripts for the review board because we understand that one of the [complainants] admitted that an incident he reported was fabricated."

Questions also have been raised about how Leonard is paying for his defense and court costs. The plea agreement requires the priest to pay $1,700 for a psychological evaluation and for any treatment.

James C. Roberts, Leonard's attorney, said the priest's friends are helping him financially. Roberts also said he is cutting his fee in half. "He could not do it without the assistance," Roberts added.

The case has upset some Catholics.

Sullivan placed Leonard on administrative leave while allegations made to the diocese were investigated. Sullivan reinstated Leonard even though the diocesan sexual-review panel recommended against it.

Some members of the panel resigned in protest, and the panel was replaced.

C. Thomas Burke of Great Falls, a former parishioner at St. Michael's, said Sullivan owes the sexual-review panel a public apology. The panel was correct to recommend against reinstating Leonard, Burke said.

A woman, who identified herself only as a survivor of priest sexual abuse, said in a phone call to The Times-Dispatch that victims "are outraged, hurt and disappointed" at the outcome of the Leonard case.

"It's just been shoved under the carpet," she said. "They need to put [Leonard] in an office situation away from children."

But one of Leonard's parishioners, Gwen Sarsfield, said she believes Leonard is innocent.

"We are so proud of how he has handled himself," she said. "He's a good person and could hurt no one. Father is a man of great faith, strength and character. I would trust him with my children."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.