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Richmond's Troubled Diocese

Aug 20, 2002 | The Washington Post

The whirring of drills provided the backdrop for Mass recently at St. Michael's Catholic Church in this Richmond suburb, as the Rev. John E. Leonard led about 30 men and women through the liturgy of a simple midweek service.

The construction of a new sanctuary signals a parish that is growing and also one that is determined to move forward in the face of scandal and dissension. The sex-abuse controversies that have rocked churches from Boston to Los Angeles have arrived here in this quiet community that is home to many of Richmond's highest-profile companies.

Leonard, or "Father John" as his flock calls him, is under criminal investigation because of renewed accusations that he drugged and sexually abused a teenager nearly three decades ago. The fact that he continues to lead his parish has polarized members of the Diocese of Richmond, which includes 200,000 Catholics and spreads across most of Virginia. Among his parishioners, though, Leonard has virtually unflinching support.

Leonard, who has maintained that he did nothing wrong, declined through his attorney, James C. Roberts, to be interviewed. The diocese investigated and rejected the accusations of drugging and abuse in 1996, but asked prosecutors to investigate this month after the alleged victim, a Norfolk man, came forward with more detailed information about the same incident. No charges have been filed.

Roberts said Leonard "certainly is not happy. Nobody would be happy to see this thing we thought was put to rest six years ago resurrected."

As a local commonwealth's attorney investigates the complaints of sexual abuse against Leonard, a diocesan panel created to manage such crises has split and dissolved over Bishop Walter F. Sullivan's handling of earlier accusations against Leonard. Two priests have been removed from their duties after sex-abuse allegations surfaced and three new sex-abuse accusations, leveled at other priests, are being investigated by the church, officials said last week.

Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), a Catholic who has lived in the diocese since 1984, favors immediately turning over to civil authorities any allegations of sex abuse by clergy.

"I think putting it in the hands of a prosecutor enables somebody with some credibility to move quickly," said Kaine, who has proposed that clergy be required to report cases of child abuse. "It helps the church have credibility and ferret out the truth."

The scandal that began in Boston and spread across the nation has suddenly confronted the Richmond diocese -- known for its liberal, social advocacy -- with the range of issues Catholics elsewhere have faced: sexual abuse accusations against priests, a laity rippling with tension and concern and a leadership struggling to apply new guidelines to transgressions that in some cases are decades old.

"It was like the skies broke open," said Rev. Pasquale J. Apuzzo, a diocese spokesman. "I think in one sense we're a microcosm of what the church has been going through."

In his regular diocesan column released Thursday, Sullivan compared the scandal to a cancer that "tears at the heart of innocent victims and their families. It fractures the harmony of our diocesan community."

This month, Sullivan removed Julian Goodman from his Charlottesville church and John P. Blankenship from his prison chaplaincy after both men admitted to abuse of teenagers decades ago.

Leonard, 63, initially accused of sexually abusing three boys in the 1970s, returned to St. Michael's -- where he was given a standing ovation -- in June after a seven-week church investigation found that abuse had not occurred. Then, last week, more allegations surfaced about the alleged druging and abusing incident that was investigated in 1996.

As parishes have faced escalating troubles, so, too, has the Diocese of Richmond. Sullivan's decision to reinstate Leonard prompted the resignation of all five lay members of a 10-person panel created in April to deal with sexual accusations. The panel is being reorganized to include a majority of laypeople, church officials said.

"It's very fair to say that the process, as we look back on it, had a lot of inherent problems," Apuzzo said, adding that there is "a lot of disappointment and surprise over the two priests who were removed" and "stress, agitation and confusion" about Leonard.

Those closest to Leonard, however, profess no such reservations. "Do I love the man? Do I believe the man? Yes, very much," said Mardie Brittingham, a member of St. Michael's. "What he gives to you, the spirituality of it is so deep."

In 1992, St. Michael's opened its doors in a growing suburb of the state capital with a fresh, charismatic voice -- Leonard's -- in the pulpit. The church grew fast, and now boasts 1,700 families, making it one of the largest and most popular parishes in the diocese. Construction of the new sanctuary and classroom is financed by a $4 million fundraising drive.

Creating and sustaining the church, said members and diocese officials, is Leonard. Church members said his philosophy is to have an impact on the entire community, and parishioners are active in a local youth-emergency shelter, feeding the homeless and Habitat for Humanity, among other charitable endeavors. Leonard also started a popular program that encourages families to meet in each other's homes for Bible study.

Members also said Leonard is always available to help with personal problems. "I've gone to him several times for advice, and he has always helped me," said Heather Knorr. "He directed me on the right path. He seemed to understand."

St. Michael's is part of a diocese with a liberal reputation, according to religion experts, largely because of Sullivan, who has been bishop since the diocese was created in 1974.

But Sullivan, who is known as an outspoken critic of the death penalty and the U.S. military and is an ardent campaigner for peace, now faces his own battles as victims and support groups criticize his handling of the Leonard case.

The criticism started this spring with the diocese's investigation of a complaint that, in the 1970s, Leonard told two boys to lower their pants in a Pittsburgh hotel room when they were students of his at St. John Vianney Seminary, a now-defunct Catholic boarding school 25 miles west of Richmond.

Sullivan determined that the accusations did not constitute sexual abuse, backing up his decision with psychological examinations of Leonard.

A former student who made the accusation, Thor Gormley, 49, said he was stung by the decision and the implication that what happened to him was insignificant.

"If you're asking me, was I naive about the institutional church and how it can act, oh yeah, I'm completely shocked," Gormley said. "It was bad enough to have these experiences and then . . . the bishop saying it was trivial locker room behavior. You know, it hurts," added Gormley, who, nevertheless, remains in a deacon training program. "I'm not going to let treatment of me or other victims dissuade me from what I feel is my call."

Therese M. May, one of the panel members who resigned over the Leonard case, said the diocese has been "polarized" by Sullivan and that "people are shell-shocked because [the national scandal] is here at home."

May said she resigned because she "did not like the way accusers were being treated" and complained that the panel was not provided a report from the team investigating Leonard before Sullivan reinstated him.

But church leaders say problems with the panel don't change their minds about the complaints against Leonard.

Apuzzo said the drugging and sex abuse accusations, leveled this month by Bruce Jeter, 44, in a Virginian-Pilot article, were a far more serious version of allegations raised in 1996, and the diocese felt they were best handled by the commonwealth's attorney in Goochland County, where the seminary was located.

"The diocese does not have the skills of a detective agency or the resources of law enforcement officials," Sullivan wrote last week. "This is why . . . I asked the Commonwealth's attorney in Goochland to open an investigation."

Even as accusations and suspicion swirl around him, Leonard remains in the church he started, presiding over his parishioners, just where they want him.

"He is a wonderful, wonderful man. He makes every person he meets, no matter how long he knows you, feel special," said Cindy Pauls, adding that the controversy has "taken its toll" on St. Michael's, and parishioners "just want it to be over."

She, like other members, discounted the accusations against Leonard. "I'm glad Goochland County is looking at it," Pauls said. "Maybe it'll be put to rest when they don't find anything."

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