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Date of Issue: January 07, 2009

St. Bernard priest under investigation

A St. Bernard Catholic Church priest has come under investigation for alleged sexual misconduct in Fort Myers 15 years ago.

Islanders learned of the allegation against the Rev. Jean Ronald Joseph last week, some while attending Sunday Mass at St. Bernard, 248 S. Harbor Drive, and some from breaking news reports.

At the time of the alleged misconduct, Joseph was working at St. Frances Xavier Catholic Church in Fort Myers.

While the diocese’s investigation continues, Joseph has consulted an attorney and, in a brief interview with The Islander, denied any wrongdoing. He also continues to struggle with serious illness.

Meanwhile, Island friends and supporters of the priest are circulating a petition calling for a public forum on the matter “so that he may answer any questions.”

The petition also states, “We the undersigned fully support Father Jean Ronald Joseph. We totally deny the false accusations against him from 15 years ago.”

That petition is available for signatures at Sato Real Estate, 708 S. Bay Blvd., Anna Maria, and information on the support effort can be obtained by calling Barbara Sato, 941-778-7200.

The church’s official statement was put in the form of a letter from the Most Rev. Frank Dewane, bishop of the Diocese of Venice in Florida, that area priests read before celebrating Mass Dec. 28. The statement also was issued to the media Dec. 29.

“The allegation alleges that sexual misconduct occurred in 1993 between Father Joseph and someone who at that time was a minor,” the bishop said.

“Father Joseph denies the allegation and strenuously maintains his innocence. At my request, father has agreed to remove himself from active ministry while the inquiry proceeds.”

The statement went on to say that “these are very painful times for Father Joseph, the lay faithful as well as the clergy.”

The diocese has not made public the gender or age of the accuser, nor details of the allegation.

The investigation falls under the diocese’s Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults policy.

The diocese policy was adopted in June 2003 and has since been revised twice. At 17 pages, the document details how the diocese will manage the process of responding to an allegation of sexual misconduct — the investigation, the review of the findings and the action to be taken depending on whether an allegation is deemed substantiated or false.

With an accusation found to substantiated, a priest may be removed from ministry, encouraged to seek counsel and possibly prosecuted in the criminal justice system.

With an accusation found to be false, the diocese “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 continue to offer pastoral assistance, as appropriate” to the accuser.

The diocese stressed in its statement a “zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse with a minor” and encouraged potential victims to contact law enforcement officials or the Victim Assistance Office of the Diocese of Venice.

The News-Press in Fort Myers, the first newspaper to report on the allegation, said Joseph is the second priest to have served in that area to come under investigation since August.

The newspaper reported that Joseph was ordained in Florida in October 1993 and performs work for Haitian ministries. Joseph, in a 1994 interview with the News-Press, said he escaped Haiti after his brother was slain under the rule of Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Last week, after a morning service at St. Bernard, churchgoers declined to talk about the investigation, saying it would be inappropriate to comment.

Joseph also previously worked at St. Joseph Parish in Bradenton.

In 2002, the Rev. Donald Baier, a then St. Bernard Catholic Church priest, had his ministerial privileges removed because of sexual abuse that occurred 20 years earlier in St. Petersburg.