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Bishop Defends Priest Accused Of Sexual Abuse

Aug 2, 2002 | The Daily Press

It was an evening of dueling testimonies.

One came from a former Catholic seminary student who has accused a priest of sexual abuse. He told his story to a sex abuse panel meeting in the rectory of St. Bede Catholic Church in Williamsburg.

The other came from the leader of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond who reinstated the accused priest last month following an in-house investigation by a diocesan-appointed assessment team.

Thor Gormley and the Very Rev. Walter Sullivan, bishop of the Richmond Diocese, have arrived at starkly different conclusions involving the claim by Gormley and two other students that the Rev. John E. Leonard sexually abused them while a staff member at the defunct St. John Vianney Seminary in Goochland.

In a statement presented during a 7 p.m. news conference - at the same time Gormley spoke privately to a diocesan panel made up of lay Catholics and clergy - Sullivan cast the alleged incident involving Leonard as improper, yet not rising to the level of having "deviant intentions."

"The issue is the behavior of Father Leonard. Is the behavior so outrageous that it deserves a terrible punishment?"

Sullivan doesn't think it does.

Sullivan described an account of what might have happened decades ago at the seminary as boys being boys. Sullivan said Leonard's behavior "blurred boundaries" and that it was "imprudent for a seminary faculty member. That appraisal doesn't ignore the setting of an all-boys boarding school."

"There are the daily routines, the sports-related pranks and the typical camaraderie that could take on ugly nuances if cast into another setting," said Sullivan.

Not only did Gormley strongly disagree with this assessment, the Virginia Beach man found it laughable.

"Everyone should have a friend like the bishop," Gormley said in thick sarcasm.

Following his testimony to a diocesan panel, Gormley read through a copy of the bishop's prepared statement, stopping at the section that described his alleged incidents of abuse as child's play.

He laughed. But clearly, he found nothing humorous about Sullivan's words.

Sighing before saying anything more, Gormley said, "No comment" and crossed the street to the church parking lot for his car.

After two hours of additional discussion, lay panel members who heard Gormley tell his story also declined comment.

The meeting itself was partly in response to strong criticism from groups including the Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and others who've become watchdogs, concerned that individual dioceses may not adhere to policies agreed upon last June during a national conference of U.S. bishops in Dallas.

The timing of the meeting closely follows that of a lay Catholic national review board headed by Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating.

On July 30, the lay board formed by the U.S. bishops called upon each bishop to outline the policy of his diocese in adhering to the child-protection charter that advocates a so-called zero-tolerance policy toward priests and incidents of sexual abuse and inappropriate behavior.

The handling of allegations lodged against the Rev. John E. Leonard by Gormley is one of several "egregious examples across the nation" cited by David Clohessy, executive director of SNAP, of non-compliance with an agreement made under the glare of national and international news media attention.

Clohessy describes the actions taken by Sullivan and other bishops in contrast to what is described in the Dallas Charter as "backsliding."

In a phone interview Clohessy said, "I can't say that we're shocked by the bishops, but I can say we're disappointed.

"But even in Dallas, many bishops said they voted for zero-tolerance reluctantly. That sent up red flags."

Along with Clohessy, Mark Serrano, a SNAP board member from Virginia, also attended the national bishops' conference in Dallas.

Serrano, who lives in Leesburg, said in an interview prior to the evening meeting that he spoke to Gormley after the Virginia Beach man went public with his claims. He says he fears Gormley's treatment by the diocese could cause other possible abuse victims to refrain from coming forth to tell their own stories.

Serrano said Sullivan's behavior is a sign that little changed among the attitudes of bishops within the Catholic Church after Dallas.

"There is still more interest in the protection of priests than in the protection of children," Serrano said.

"It is a sign of the arrogance of power that some bishops exercise in the Catholic Church. Children could be at risk today and their safety compromised. I hope that Catholics in the Diocese of Richmond call Bishop Sullivan to account for his actions."

How could Sullivan do right by SNAP and other lay Catholic groups upset by his actions?

"He could move toward compliance," Serrano said. "He could remove the priest from ministry and let his review board do its job.

"I'm willing to let them take a crack at this case. Why isn't he?"

The fact that Sullivan did not consult with his the diocesan review board caused one member to quit.

Does Sullivan plan to change his mind about the end result of the Leonard case?

"No way, whatsoever," Sullivan said.

Sullivan's handling of the Leonard case follows a small, yet notable trend of bishops unwilling to abide by Dallas' zero-tolerance - a policy never officially endorsed by the pope - that in some respects would have to be followed on a voluntary basis.

A Catholic priest can be removed from a parish assignment and severely restricted of his duties, all the while remaining a priest.

All priests are entitled by canon law to appeal rulings in their cases.

In Chicago, church officials have been tolerant, teetering to the point of endorsement in regard to priests making appeals to the Vatican.

In Albany, N.Y, a priest accused of abuse recently told reporters that he also might appeal his case.

Virginia lawmakers have taken an interest in officially changing the way in which such cases are reported. In July, Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine announced proposed legislation to add clergy to the list of people required to report suspected incidents of child abuse to authorities.

The proposal does not include information gleaned while a priest hears confession.

Kaine's proposal received support from both the Catholic Diocese of Richmond and the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia.

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