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Date of Issue: January 28, 2009

Accused priest: I need your prayers

An audience shows its appreciation and faith in the Rev. Jean Ronald Joseph during a forum at Holmes Beach City Hall Jan. 21. Joseph is fighting an allegation that he sexually abused a 16-year-old boy 15 years ago while serving as a priest in Fort Myers. Islander Photos: Lisa Neff
"No, never, not ever," the Rev. Jean Ronald Joseph says of the allegation that 15 years ago he fondled a 16-year-old boy.

“No, never, not ever,” said the Rev. Jean Ronald Joseph, denying before a crowd of about 150 people that he molested a 16-year-old boy in 1993.

Joseph, 44, learned in late August, during a meeting at the Diocese of Venice, of the accusation against him. The accusation became public in late December when priests throughout the diocese read to congregations a letter from the bishop, the Most Rev. Frank Dewane. On Dec. 29, the diocese released a statement to the media.

Joseph, removed from ministry at St. Bernard Catholic Church in Holmes Beach pending the outcome of the investigation, said the diocese’s public identification of him violated what he was told by church officials, that the process would be a confidential.

But the unwanted disclosure created an opportunity for Joseph to talk freely about the accusation, his family-like relationship with his accuser, now 31 years old and an educator employed by the diocese, and his treatment by the diocese.

In Holmes Beach City Hall Jan. 21, Joseph addressed a crowd of about 150 people, many of them supporters holding small, white roses.

He said he had felt suicidal and isolated in the months after he learned of the allegation. “I lost hope many times,” Joseph said.

He said he was told not to talk about the investigation. So his absence from ministry at St. Bernard Catholic Church in Holmes Beach left many people wondering, speculating and asking why.

“I could not say,” Joseph said. “I could not tell even my own mother.”

Joseph first spoke publicly about the allegation in The Islander several weeks ago, denying the allegation and joining his supporters in seeking a public forum.

Bonner Joy, who publishes The Islander and has openly supported Joseph in recent weeks, scheduled the event and welcomed a crowd that filled the city commission chambers to capacity and spilled into the lobby.

Islander Lauren Sato and attorney John Fleck spoke before Joseph.

Sato said sex abuse is a serious offense, but so is wrongly accusing someone of such an offense. She asked that people “listen to the facts without making judgments.”

 Fleck, who serves as Joseph’s civil attorney, said he met the priest about five years ago.

“Father Ron is 100 percent innocent of this accusation,” Fleck said. The attorney said he is not accepting payment from Joseph for his representation. After the forum, to help with “out-of-pocket” legal costs, Island property owner David Sandoro deposited $300 to open the Father Ron Legal Defense Fund at Regions Bank, 3900 Sixth Ave., Holmes Beach.

Later in the forum, Fleck read an excerpt from the accuser’s letter: “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.”

“Father Ron will tell you about the accusation,” Fleck said. “Father Ron has nothing to hide.”

Joseph, in a strong voice many in the audience had heard in sermons, said, “I will tell you, ‘No, I did not do it.’”

When Joseph was assigned in 1993 to St. Xavier Catholic Church in Fort Myers, where the abuse allegedly occurred, he replaced a priest caught up in a scandal.

The church was under scrutiny, Joseph said, adding that there were never sleepovers in the rectory.

“I didn’t even give a hug to anyone,” he said.

Joseph said the accuser is a family friend and was a troubled boy, that he saw the man as recently as May 2008, and that their conversation was cheerful.

Joseph compared the accusation against him to the betrayal of Jesus by one of his apostles.

He also said he felt betrayed by others in the church. “But I never lost faith in the message of the church,” Joseph said.

Occasional outbursts of applause interrupted Joseph’s comments.

Near the end of the forum, a number of people stood to voice their support, including parishioners at St. Bernard and two men who have known Joseph and his accuser for years.

“I’m not shocked to see all of you here,” said David Lambert, who has known Joseph for about 18 years and was involved in the priest’s youth group. “I am shocked at the accuser. He is a friend of mine. It’s not true.”

Prior to the forum, two organizers with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests handed out papers advising parishioners on “what to do when your priest is accused of abuse.”

SNAP is a nationwide non-profit organization offering assistance to victims of priest abuse and tracking allegations and investigations.

The recommendations included, “Remember that abuse, sadly, is quite common,” “understand that abuse victims often have ‘troubled’ backgrounds,” “remain open-minded,” “pray for all parties involved” and “don’t allow the mere passage of time to discredit the accusers.”

“Child abuse is so horrific that a child can’t process it,” SNAP victims outreach director Barbara Dorris said.

Florida SNAP coordinator Martha Jean Lorenzo said too often in investigations parishioners rush to judgment — that the accuser is a liar motivated by money or with malice.

“We’re very concerned about those who are signing a petition that says, ‘We totally deny the false accusations,’” Lorenzo said.

Amy Spoll accepted the SNAP material on her way into city hall.

“I’m here to listen,” said Spoll, a part-time Islander who occasionally attends St. Bernard. “It’s easy to sympathize with Father Ron. He’s wonderful. But I know there’s someone else out there who needs compassion, whatever the story is.”

Fleck, during the forum, read a Jan. 15 letter from the diocese to Joseph stating that a review board found the allegation “credible” and indicating that the investigation would continue.

“The diocese is saying they believe the accuser in this matter,” Fleck said.

The investigation, Fleck added, will continue without Joseph undergoing the medical and psychological evaluation the diocese has repeatedly requested. Such evaluations have no validity, the attorney said.

A representative of the diocese did not speak at the forum, but diocese spokesperson Adela Gonzales White later said the diocese has emphasized that Joseph strongly maintains his innocence.

“The diocese made very clear in its announcement to the parishes and the subsequent statement to the press that Father Joseph denies the allegation and strenuously maintains his innocence,” White stated in a response to media inquiries following the forum. “Although he has been removed from public ministry while the investigation is conducted, Father Joseph should continue his prayer life. In addition, he continues to receive his salary and benefits.”

White also said the diocese is following its policy and the rules of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops.

“The diocesan review process is not finished, it takes time,” White stated. “This is a very serious matter and the diocese is not rushing to a conclusion. We are concerned about the well being of both parties involved — the person making the accusation and Father Joseph. It is our responsibility to get to the bottom of this.”

However, Joseph’s canon advocate — his representative before the church — said that at the point the accusation was deemed credible, the diocese should have sent the case to the church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with a request for a recommendation on how to proceed.

The advocate, the Rev. Michael L. Maginot, said the request should include a defense statement from him and that has yet to happen.

“The diocese is in violation of the Pontifical Secret by not awaiting the instructions of the CDF on how to proceed, which includes notifying the other parishes and the press,” Maginot said. “This is usually corrected by the CDF giving the bishop a slap on the wrist, warning him not to do this again in the future.”

SNAP also has questioned the diocese’s procedures, suggesting that the investigation should be turned over to law enforcement authorities and that Joseph should turn in his passport. The priest grew up in Haiti, where he continues to aid orphan children, but now is a U.S. citizen.

“We fear that Father Joseph may be tempted to jump on a plane and return home instead of facing justice here,” said David Clohessy, national director of SNAP.

Further, in a letter to Dewane, Clohessy said, “You could set an example by voluntarily turning over all information about Joseph to police and prosecutors. Clergy sex crimes should be investigated by trained and impartial law enforcement.”

Several people at the forum also suggested law enforcement rather than the church should investigate the allegation.

Asked about turning the case over to law enforcement, White stated, “It has not been determined that a crime has been committed.”

While the diocese investigation continues, Islanders said they would continue to circulate petitions on Joseph’s behalf.

SNAP organizers said they would continue to work on the accuser’s behalf.

Joseph, who said he has been forbidden to attend Mass in the diocese, said he will continue to fight the allegation.

He said last week that he simply wants to return to ministering as a priest.

“It’s all I’ve ever known,” he said. “It’s who I am.”

He concluded the forum by joining his supporters in The Lord’s Prayer.