Former youth group members defend priest
Rudy Bigord earns a living helping people get on track and improve their lives while on probation for a crime.
When Bigord looks back to his youth, he’s glad for the direction that led him down a road to becoming a probation officer and not a road headed for trouble.
Bigord said he got a lot of direction from a youth group he joined as a teenager in the mid-1990s that the Rev. Jean Ronald Joseph led.
Joseph is on leave from his ministerial duties at St. Bernard Catholic Church in Holmes Beach while under church investigation for sexual misconduct. The accusation goes back to an alleged incident 15 years ago, and the accuser, like Bigord, was a member of Joseph’s church-based youth group.
Joseph denies the accusation, which is under review by the Diocese of Venice.
At the time of the alleged misconduct, Joseph was a priest at St. Xavier Catholic Church in Fort Myers. Before that, he worked at a parish in Port Charlotte.
Bigord, who works in Tampa, is one of a number of former members of the youth group to step forward and defend the priest.
“I feel like if it wasn’t for Father Ronald, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Bigord said. “He’s a great priest.”
Bigord described Joseph as a “big brother” who offered him guidance in preparing for college and choosing a school.
“I just feel like, if it wasn’t for him, I don’t know,” Bigord said of the direction his life might have taken.
He said a lot of his high school friends who were not involved in the church-based youth group grew up to have lives very different from his.
“They have a completely different lifestyle than everybody who attended youth group,” Bigord said. “I feel like if I hadn’t joined the group, I could have been a statistic. Some friends got involved in the wrong things. I feel like that youth group saved my life.”
Bigord remembered the group members engaged in a lot of discussion, as well as took field trips and hosted events.
Former youth group member Patrick Larivaud said the group existed to provide “camaraderie and togetherness and promote the whole Christian for a better way of life thing.”
He said he was involved in the group in the mid-1990s, and that Joseph was “kind of like a mediator and overseer.”
“It was a well-rounded group,” Bigord said, adding that the group also offered comfort and support for the area’s population of Haitian descent.
In recent years, Bigord said he saw Joseph occasionally, at birthday celebrations and other events.
Bigord and Larivaud most recently saw Joseph when the priest spoke Jan. 21 at Holmes Beach City Hall to more than 100 people to assert his innocence in the abuse case.
“I wanted to let him know he had my support,” said Larivaud, who works as a bartender in Sarasota. “I wanted him to really know I was there for him and I didn’t believe the accusation.”
Bigord said he too wanted to show Joseph his support.
He said as a law enforcement officer, he deals with innocence and guilt and judgment. “I see this stuff all the time,” Bigord said.
He added that he feels certain that the accusation against Joseph is “not true.” He said the circumstances of a “sleepover” claimed by the accuser never occurred.
“The way to know that,” Bigord said, “is to know him and to be around him and to see the type of person he is.… He would do anything at all to assist somebody, to help somebody, to sacrifice for somebody.”
At the forum, Bigord and another former youth group member, David Lambert, spoke in denial of the accusation.
“I’m not shocked to see all of you here,” Lambert said. “I am shocked at the accuser. He is a friend of mine. It’s not true.”
Benefit planned for priest
The Islander and Sato Real Estate will host a social, appreciation and benefit for the Rev. Jean Ronald Joseph from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 18.
The event will take place at the Sandbar Restaurant, 100 Spring Ave., Anna Maria.
Proceeds from the event will help Joseph with medical and legal expenses, as well as with travel to Haiti to work with the Ministry of Presence Orphanage.
Tickets — $50 — to the event are available at The Islander, 5404 Marina Drive, Holmes Beach, and Sato Real Estate, 519 Pine Ave., Anna Maria.