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Church in Crisis

Virginia bishop under fire for reinstating acused priest


Bishop Walter Sullivan, who recently called for the criminal prosecution of priests who sexually abused minors, is now being strongly criticized for reinstating a diocesan priest accused of sexual misconduct in the 1970s when the priest was on the faculty of a high school seminary.

Sullivan, bishop of the Richmond, Va., diocese, in June reinstated Fr. John E. Leonard as pastor of St. Michael Catholic Church in Glen Allen. Leonard had been on leave while diocesan officials investigated allegations that the priest had told two St. John Vianney Seminary high school students to pull down their pants in front of a mirror. When they did, Leonard made comments about their genitalia.

Leonard has denied the allegations in comments to reporters. However, the investigating team believed the allegations, and Sullivan has accepted the team’s report. At press time, Leonard was not available for comment.

However, four lay members of a 10-person panel Sullivan appointed to review allegations of sexual abuse -- some of whom were members of the investigating team -- resigned in protest over the fact that Sullivan did not consult with the panel prior to making a decision to reinstate Leonard.

“As far as I’m concerned sexual abuse of a minor is a rape -- a rape pure and simple,” Sullivan said in an April interview with NCR. “And a person should be accountable to the law, not just to the church, but to the civil law. I told our priests 15 years ago that if any of them committed such actions that I’d be happy to visit them in prison.”

While three of Leonard’s former students have made allegations that the priest engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior, they haven’t accused him of making genital contact. Sullivan said the actions of Leonard “did cross boundaries,” but he found no evidence that Leonard physically molested the students.

“I would say he used poor judgment; he was imprudent, but I didn’t see any molestation,” said Sullivan, who ordered Leonard to get a psychological evaluation. “There was no genital touching of any kind. … These were seniors in high school.”

However, one of the three men, 49-year-old diaconate candidate Thor Gormley, said Leonard is “a sexual predator” who used his position of authority and trust to emotionally abuse him and another student while the three were staying in a Pittsburgh hotel room during a trip to visit a college.

At the time of the abuse, Gormley said, Leonard was serving as his spiritual director. After taking the two 17-year-olds to a restaurant where he bought them alcohol, he said, the trio went to their hotel where the priest told the two boys to pull down their pants and underwear in front of a mirror.

“Fr. Leonard would make comments, ‘Look at the size of Thor’s penis and his testicles. That’s a nice penis and nice testicles.’ I knew that this wasn’t normal behavior, but it’s one of those things where when you love and care about a man and you shared your innermost thoughts that if he asks you take your pants down ... then you do it,” Gormley said. “His behaviors were shameful, inappropriate, perverted and probably illegal.”

Psychologist Therese M. May, who investigated Gormley’s claims and then resigned from the sex abuse panel after Leonard was reinstated, said Leonard’s actions would be considered a felony under state law both at the time of the offense and now. “The statutes for child sexual abuse are very broad in Virginia,” May said. “That’s using a kid for sexual gratification.”

Gormley, who is a third-year candidate for diaconate ordination in the Richmond diocese, said he came forward with allegations because he couldn’t go through ordination unless he was sure Leonard was no longer abusing boys. First, he brought the allegations to his pastor. They eventually reached the bishop “and the next thing I know this thing’s all over.”

Gormley, a father of two grown daughters, said he also feels let down by his bishop.

“That my bishop says that the behaviors that [Leonard] entered into with me were nothing, that they were high school pranks, that they were locker-room high jinx ... every time the bishop says that it’s violating. Frankly it really is, and I don’t use that word easily -- it’s violating.”

Gormley says it has been a painful process to come to speak publicly about the incident with Leonard. He initially had fears that his children would not understand what happened to him.

“The people who have come forward are all getting older now, and as you get older, you become more confident in your marriage, in your career, and your kids get to the age where they can understand that daddy isn’t gay because this happened, and you can explain to your family.

“I don’t know how to say it, but so many years you go through and you say to yourself, ‘What was it about me that drew this homosexual behavior out of him?’ ... What is it about me that men who I try to completely trust take that trust and interpret it as having the ability to come on and try to have a sexual encounter with me? And you look at that -- at least me -- and I kept it to myself.”

Richmond lawyer Dennis O. Laing, who also resigned from the panel, said Sullivan is sending the wrong message by reinstating Leonard after the U.S. bishops recently instituted tougher guidelines to deal with priest sexual abuse at their June meeting in Dallas. Sullivan’s failure to consult the panel before making his decision “absolutely eviscerates the process. ... If that’s the case these panels are just a farce,” Laing said.

Sullivan, who has been the Richmond bishop since 1974, said he was unclear what he was supposed to do with the report that investigated Leonard. He said he also was under pressure because the diocese’s guidelines called for action within 60 days of a priest being placed on leave.

“I did not purposely avoid the panel,” Sullivan said. “I had to make a decision. They did not say you have to take this to the panel. It was a misunderstanding. I regret the fact that it looks like, as some might say, a cover-up, you might say or hiding it. I’m not hiding the situation.”

Sullivan said he did not speak to Leonard, but he did consult “with two well-trusted and highly qualified persons” who “completely agreed” with his decision to reinstate Leonard.

However, Laing says he had a moral duty to resign and speak out. “If something happens next month, next year to someone else and I look the other way, I wouldn’t feel very good about myself if I didn’t do what I thought was right,” he said.

Gormley, who works in commercial real estate, said he still plans to go through with his ordination, even though he will be serving in the same diocese where he is likely to encounter Leonard.

“I hope that every time he sees me he remembers to stay away from young boys,” he said. “And I hope that any time a pedophilic member of the clergy sees me as a fellow member of the clergy that they remember that there is somebody in the clergy who will not tolerate this kind of behavior and who will be vocal about it.”

Sullivan says he is standing by his decision, which has the support of many people who back Leonard.

“We’ve got the press all hopped up about it, but I’ll tell you the priest -- oh God, the parishioners are just thrilled that he’s back with them,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan told NCR that, as required by the investigation team, Leonard underwent psychological evaluation and treatment, “and he got a clean bill of health.”

Patrick O’Neill is a freelance writer living in Raleigh, N.C.

National Catholic Reporter, August 16, 2002