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Date of Issue: January 21, 2009

Church procedure questioned in abuse case

The Rev. Jean Ronald Joseph denies an allegation of sexual misconduct 15 years ago in Fort Myers. Islander Photo: Bonner Joy

Supporters of the Rev. Jean Ronald Joseph question whether the Diocese of Venice followed church policy in identifying the Catholic priest as a target of an abuse investigation.

Joseph, 44, as well as his attorney, John Fleck, also have questioned how the diocese handled the abuse allegation and are expected to explore the issue during a public forum at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 21, at Holmes Beach City Hall.

“I think it is horrible,” Peg Delegato said of the diocese’s handling of the investigation against Joseph. Delegato has known Joseph for about five years and serves as treasurer of the Ministry of Presence, a Haitian aid ministry founded by Joseph and the late Sister Bernice Buckeley.

“For some reason unknown to me they seem out to get him,” said Delegato, a social justice officer with a Catholic church in Palmetto. “ I know that in such allegations, the church has to do something. However, to name him, seek out others and to publish his picture is just plain wrong. He has been condemned during an investigation, before any wrongdoing. I cannot believe that Jesus Christ would approve of this method.”

Others echoed Delegato’s statement, some who met Joseph years ago when he worked in Port Charlotte and Fort Myers, and some who met him as the priest at St. Bernard Catholic Church in Holmes Beach.

“How can he ever recover his reputation and go on?” said Paulette Goodman as she left St. Bernard following a service last week. “I think abuse in the church has to be taken seriously, but this seems so destructive.”

The diocese identified Joseph as a priest accused of sexual misconduct during Mass in area churches on Dec. 27-28 and in a statement to the media on Dec. 29.

“An allegation has been made against the Reverend Jean Ronald Joseph who is a priest in the Diocese of Venice in Florida,” the press statement read. “The allegation alleges that sexual misconduct occurred in 1993 between Father Joseph and someone, who, at that time, was a minor.

“Father Joseph denies the allegation and strenuously maintains his innocence. At Bishop [Frank] Dewane’s request, Father has agreed to remove himself from active ministry while the diocesan investigation is conducted.”

The diocese ordered Joseph not to say Mass or administer sacraments, not to wear clerical garb, not to reside in a location owned by the diocese and not to have any contact with the accuser or “others who may come forward with additional accusations.”

A spokesperson for the diocese said Jan. 15 that “the investigation is ongoing and it would be inappropriate to discuss” whether additional accusations have been made against Joseph.

His accuser is a 31-year-old educator in the Port Charlotte area who was a member of a youth group Joseph started when he was a deacon in Port Charlotte and continued as a priest in Fort Myers at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church.

The accuser did not return The Islander’s calls.

His letter containing the allegation states, “I was asked to sleep in the same bed by Father Joseph. I woke up from a deep sleep and felt Father Joseph touching my private parts. He was poking and touching my penis. When I realized what was happening, I was in shock and disbelief. I immediately closed my eyes, pretended [to] be asleep and said nothing. Father Joseph stopped probably realizing that I woke up.”

Joseph denies the accusation and denies that any youth slept over took place at the rectory.

“Never,” he said.

And he repeatedly questioned why the diocese so publically identified him while the investigation into the allegation is ongoing. He said he and Fleck were asked to keep the investigation confidential and that the diocese broke confidentiality.

But diocese spokesperson Adela Gonzales White said, “In cases of child sexual abuse, the diocese does not and will not enter into confidentiality agreements. The diocese has a communications policy that reflects openness and transparency.”

She continued, “With the confine of respect for privacy and the reputations of the individuals involved, the diocese is dealing as openly as possible with members of the parish communities, especially with regard to assisting and supporting those parish communities that may have been affected directly by the alleged ministerial misconduct involving minors.”

White said the diocese’s handling of the investigation conforms with article 7 in the “Charter for Protection of Children and Young People, Essential Norms of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.”

The diocese also is in compliance with its Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults policy, she said.

The diocese’s policy and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops charter were adopted in 2003 and 2002 respectively, as the church came under worldwide scrutiny for widespread allegations of abuse and cover-ups.

A 2002 survey of abuse in the church conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and commissioned by the USCCB documented 11,000 allegations of sexual abuse of children by priests from 1950 to 2002.

About 61 percent of the allegations were substantiated. In a majority of the cases of abuse, priests were accused of a single incident and 78 percent of the victims were 11-17 years old.

The year after the USCCB adopted the charter for the protection of children, the Diocese of Venice adopted its policy, which was revised in 2005. The diocese also created a new abuse prevention program.

An audit of the church’s actions in the wake of the abuse scandal in 2002 and 2003 shows “that the bishops continue to build on past efforts” to create a safe environment for children,” said the Most Rev. William S. Skylstad of the USCCB. “Such efforts, however, are and must remain ongoing. Vigilance to ensure the safety of children is now a way of life.”

It is in a time of vigilance and zero tolerance in the Roman Catholic Church that the allegation against Joseph was made.

Representatives with organizations that represent victims of sexual abuse, as well as child welfare groups, endorsed the diocese’s decision to disclose the investigation and identify the accused priest.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, indicated that the diocese could do more and report the allegation to a local law enforcement agency.

The diocese policy does not require it to file a report with a law enforcement agency, but instead states, “In every instance the diocese will advise and support a person’s right to make a report to public authorities.”

The diocese will not comment on the status of its investigation into the allegation against Joseph other than to say that it is ongoing.

The allegation was made in an Aug. 9 letter signed by the accuser. Joseph received a letter informing him of the accusation on Aug. 26.

Prior to notifying the priest, the accuser spoke with the diocesan victim assistance minister, White said. The minister “aids in the immediate pastoral care of persons who claim to have been sexually abused by diocesan personal.”

In September, Joseph and the accuser appeared separately before a review board looking into the accusation. Soon after the panel met, Fleck received notice that additional investigation was required, and that a recommendation might be made to the board in about three weeks.

Neither Fleck nor Joseph has received notice of any recommendation.

Asked how the diocese will proceed when its investigation is completed, White said the diocese would follow the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults policy.

The 17-page policy describes a preliminary investigation, which could lead to the bishop temporarily relieving the alleged offender from the ministry, which has happened in the Joseph case.

The policy also describes the activity of a review board, which first considered the allegation against Joseph in September.

“Receiving the results of the preliminary investigation and recommending a finding to the bishop on whether the allegation is credible and substantial, whether it is unfounded or whether the results of the investigation do not substantiate the allegations. The review board may recommend that further investigation be undertaken if it will reasonably assist in gathering additional facts not otherwise presented.”

The review board in Joseph’s case did recommend additional investigation.

The board, according to the policy, also can make recommendations in regards to dealing with the media, the church community, the accuser and the accused, including requesting that the accused seek a clinical evaluation, which Joseph was advised to undergo.

The policy states that the information received by the board should be confidential, but the policy also states that the diocese does not enter into confidentiality agreements.

The policy further states that, “If, after the review board reviews, investigates, and receives the professional advice of knowledgeable experts, an allegation of sexual abuse is unsubstantiated (to a lesser degree than moral certitude), the bishop shall use whatever means are at his disposal to repair the damage done to the reputation of the diocesan personnel and to the church in general, and shall notify the alleged victim of the outcome, and shall continue to offer pastoral assistance, as appropriate.

“There is always the possibility of false allegations. It is important for all diocesan personnel to know that both secular law and canon law provide judicial recourse and possible penalties when individuals become victims of false denunciation, calumny and loss of reputation.”

Joseph, a Haitian immigrant who came to North America to study and be ordained a priest, has asked, “How can my reputation be repaired?”

In the weeks since the accusation became public, Joseph has received letters and calls of support from parishioners, former parishioners, clergy and friends.

“I know Ronald to be a person of integrity,” said the Rev. Gerard McCarren of the Immaculate Conception Seminar School of Theology in South Orange, N.J. “This flows from the goodness in his heart.”

McCarren said he met Joseph during their seminary days in the late 1980s, and that Joseph reminds him of Job, “who remains faithful despite great obstacles.”

In a letter to Dewane on Joseph’s behalf, McCarren said that Joseph is “a man of great integrity. My hope is that my testimony to this at a time when this has been questioned might be of some service to him and to truth.”

Vladimir Larivaud, who was a member of Joseph’s youth group in the mid-1990s, said the priest was a father figure.

“He took me as his own, from helping me get my driver’s license to making sure I was able to get a ride to school,” Larivaud said. “What impressed me the most was that he didn’t want or ask for anything in return. He just wanted to be helpful and supportive to not just me, but all of us.”

Delegato said she believes, “Somehow, someway his name will be cleared. Let’s hope it is here, in this world.”