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Former St. William's Priest Defrocked After Sex Abuse Claim

Neil Flemming is the third ex-priest with local ties to be removed by the Catholic Diocese of Venice, which recently received high marks on a national audit tracking responses to the widespread charges

Jan 13, 2004 | Naples Daily News

A close associate of Southwest Florida's bishop and longtime pastor of St. William Catholic Church in Naples has been ousted from the priesthood following charges of sexual misconduct, the third ex-priest with local ties to face such sanctions.

Neil Flemming, 72, led the Seagate Drive parish from 1982 through 1991 before taking similar posts in Sarasota and Cape Coral following a spat with another St. William's priest. He retired from the active clergy in 2000 but continued to serve Bishop John Nevins as treasurer until the allegations were made public in May 2002.

Despite the removal of Flemming, announced last week in the diocesan newspaper, officials in Venice declined to confirm whether the internal review board that investigates priest misconduct substantiated the alleged abuse.

The misconduct reportedly took place more than 30 years ago while Flemming worked in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

"The case has been closed," said Gail McGrath, a diocese spokeswoman.

Flemming, who has since moved to Citrus County north of St. Petersburg, could not be reached for comment Monday. In a brief telephone interview, his brother James also a priest in the Diocese of Venice said his brother was out of the country.

Asked if his brother's removal by Nevins could be interpreted as confirmation of the charges, James Flemming replied, "I think that's an unfair question."

Neil Flemming is the latest retired Catholic priest who once worked in Collier County parishes only to be removed from the ministry following sex abuse charges first lodged in 2002, when a torrent of claims and subsequent press accounts led to a widespread shakeup of the church.

Donald Baier, formerly of San Marco Catholic Church on Marco Island, was removed from active ministry in July 2002 once abuse charges were substantiated by the diocese, which covers Catholic churches in Lee, Collier, Sarasota and seven other Southwest Florida counties. The misconduct took place in the 1970s while Baier worked in the St. Petersburg area, according to diocese officials.

William Romero, a priest and youth group leader at St. Ann Catholic School in Naples from 1975 to 1976, resigned from the clergy last year while facing a yearlong probe by the diocese.

As with the Flemming case, diocese leaders refused to publicly disclose the findings of their Romero probe. Instead, they noted in a brief article in The Florida Catholic that Romero "petitioned Rome for dispensation from all obligations connected with the priesthood." That news report made no mention of the abuse allegations.

Romero, 66, now faces three civil lawsuits filed by adults who said he abused them as children, including a claim by a Lee County man and former St. Ann student.

Another suit involves a former altar boy in Miami, while the third case involves three siblings who've accused Romero of abusing them from 1982 through 1989 while he served as parish priest at St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church in Moore Haven, a farming town on the shores of Lake Okeechobee.

At least two other Catholic priests and one Episcopal priest who served in Lee and Collier counties have also been removed from the ministry for sexual misconduct.

McGrath, the diocese spokeswoman, said the Flemming case took nearly two years to resolve because of delays associated with stricter child-protection policies adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The changes included a strengthening of due process safeguards to protect priests from false allegations.

The absence of details in the diocese announcement worried Ted Blount, a Bonita Springs resident active in the local chapter of Voice of the Faithful, a Catholic laity reform group.

"We don't know what kind of arrangement was made (between Nevins and Flemming)," he said. "Unless such information is forthcoming, we may never know if the matter was handled in a way the laity approves of."

Flemming's removal came as the Venice diocese learned of its high marks on a nationwide audit of nearly 200 dioceses by the U.S. bishops' conference.

The audit conducted by a team of former FBI agents commended the diocese and Nevins for "its continued and timely dedication to the ongoing improvement of policies for the protection of children and young people" by way of a sex abuse prevention policy established in 1986, just two years after the diocese was created.

The auditors who spent one week interviewing church personnel in October 2003 noted the existence of a sex abuse review board since 1995, a group that consists of three clergy and five lay members, including a psychologist, a retired judge and a retired police officer.

The report's chief criticism regarded the absence of a written code of conduct for clergy and lay employees who deal with children. That change was later made by the diocese, the audit summary notes.

Critics of the audit process, including victims' groups such as the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, noted that auditors were unable to review certain records and only looked at activity since the bishops' landmark Dallas meeting in June 2002.

Still, McGrath said the report provided independent confirmation of the Venice diocese's long-standing commitment to protecting its most vulnerable members.

"It was affirmation for us that the auditors agreed," she said.

With the closure of Flemming's case and the positive audit, diocese leaders are ready to move on, McGrath added.

"There are certain things we are putting behind us and looking to a new year," she said. "Hopefully we'll be able to move on."


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