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Date of Issue: February 04, 2009

Community rallies to support priest

The Rev. Jean Ronald Joseph is on leave from St. Bernard Catholic Church in Holmes Beach pending an investigation into a recent claim of sexual misconduct 15 years ago.

For several weeks, Islander Barbara Sato has circulated a petition pledging support to the Rev. Jean Ronald Joseph in a quest to clear his name.

“I have hundreds,” Sato said, referring to the number of signatures on the petition, which can be signed at Sato Real Estate, 519 Pine Ave., Anna Maria.

The priest, who until placed on leave in August was serving parishioners at St. Bernard Catholic Church in Holmes Beach, is the target of a recent accusation of sexual misconduct with a male teenager 15 years ago.

The Venice of Diocese is conducting an investigation of the allegation, which it deemed “credible” in a Jan. 15 letter to Joseph.

Joseph maintains his innocence.

The accusation was made by a 31-year-old man who is employed at a diocese school and who was involved in Joseph’s youth group in 1993 at St. Xavier Catholic Church in Fort Myers. The accuser wrote in a letter to church officials that he was on a sleepover at the church and woke up because the priest was touching his private parts.

Joseph says the incident never took place, nor did any sleepovers ever take place during his time at St. Xavier. Several former members of Joseph’s youth group have stepped forward in recent weeks to attest to Joseph’s claim, and to state their support of the priest.

Meanwhile, Sato’s petition drive continues in concert with another petition drive taking place in Port Charlotte, where Joseph was prior to his assignment to Fort Myers.

Sato said last week that no decision had been made on how to use the petition.

Local residents and businesspeople also are showing support for Joseph and his attorney, John Fleck of Bradenton, with a legal fund.

Longboat Key resident David Sandora established the Father Ron Legal Fund at Regions Bank, 3900 Sixth Ave., Holmes Beach.

Fleck, friends with Joseph for about five years, has said he took Joseph’s case because he believes in the priest, and that he would not accept any payment from Joseph.

So Sandora decided to get involved. He put $300 into the legal fund to cover costs and expenses and invited others to donate. As of last week, the fund contained $680.

“I’ve known John for years and I know how kind he is,” said Sandora, adding that Fleck also is his attorney. “Sometimes he’s a little too giving. I know him too well, and I know he wants to absorb the costs. But that’s too much.”

 Sandora also said he knows Joseph, and he believes the priest is innocent.

“Not one other soul has come forward,” Sandora said.

A spokesperson with the diocese said last week that the investigation is ongoing.

the Jan. 15 letter from the diocese to Joseph indicated that a review board examined the allegation and recommended to the bishop, the Most Rev. Frank J. Dewane, that it is credible.

The letter, written by the vicar general, the Very Rev. Edward Moretti, states that Dewane would review the recommendation, taking the time “he deemed necessary to study and consider all elements of the initial investigation” and “concluded that the allegation needed continued examination.”

“I guess we kind of are waiting to hear from the diocese,” Fleck said.