Man Says Priest Abused Him; Diocese Investigating Claim

By Ben Montgomery
Tampa Tribune (Florida)
February 18, 2006

TAMPA - A priest removed himself from ministry at St. Cecelia Catholic Church in Clearwater after a man accused him of sexual misconduct, the Diocese of St. Petersburg said Friday.

The man, who was not identified, said he was abused when he was 16 by the Rev. Ramon Hernandez, 61, who has been a priest at several area churches. The man said he was abused in 1999 while Hernandez was at St. Rita's Catholic Church in Dade City.

Hernandez denies the allegation, said Vicki Wells Bedard, director of community relations for the diocese. His attorney could not be reached Friday night.

The man first made the allegations to the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Bedard said. The diocese encouraged the man to contact law enforcement, she said. The diocese also contacted Dade City authorities.

Dade City police said the man filed a complaint Feb. 8. After meeting with the state attorney's office, Dade City police decided not to pursue the case because of the statute of limitations, said Sgt. James Walters. The case is closed.

The church will investigate the allegations, said Bedard, who did not know the status of the case late Friday.

"Bishop [Robert] Lynch has a zero-tolerance policy," she said.

Others agreed.

"I have every faith that ... it will be handled as best as these things can be handled," said Hugh Burns, who organized the local chapter of Voice of the Faithful, a group of lay Catholic activists created after an abuse scandal in Boston.

Hernandez became a priest in Cuba and moved to the United States in 1980. He emerged in the 1990s as an important link between local exiles and their fellow Catholics in Cuba, hosting Cuban Catholic dignitaries here and organizing a trip from Tampa to Havana for exiles to support Pope John Paul II during his first visit to Cuba.

The allegations are not the first against a priest at St. Rita's. In 2003, defrocked priest Robert Schaeufele was sentenced to 30 years in prison for abusing a boy at the church.


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