Cases against ex-Naples priest settled for $1.5 million

By JANINE A. ZEITLIN
March 5, 2005

South Florida's Catholic hierarchy paid out about $1.5 million in recent months to settle three sexual misconduct cases targeting a former priest and teacher at the St. Ann Catholic parish in Naples.

The lawyer who handled the cases suspects there are potential victims yet to break their silence about William Romero's time at St. Ann school and church in 1975-76.

He said the Archdiocese of Miami, which included St. Ann during Romero's year there, hasn't thoroughly probed what transpired.

"If nobody else comes forward, it will mean that this episode in the history of Naples and the history of the Catholic Church never gets fully investigated," said Ted Zelman, the Naples attorney who represented clients in Romero sexual misconduct cases. "I believe they acknowledge what had happened but as far as really accepting their culpability, that didn't occur."

His two clients recently opted to settle to forgo shame of reliving the alleged abuse in a courtroom, he said.

Romero, 68, retired in 1995 and resigned from the clergy in 2003 after allegations resurfaced.

Of five known lawsuits lodged against Romero and the Miami archdiocese, one is still pending - a man suing Romero with claims the former priest fondled him as a 10-year-old Coral Gables altar boy in 1975.

The case is slated for an April trial.

Archdiocese of Miami and Diocese of Venice officials say they've exhausted efforts to root out potential Romero victims and their investigations are shut.

Gail McGrath, diocese spokeswoman, said she sent a bulletin to St. Ann about the Romero abuse allegations in June 2002 and an announcement was delivered from the pulpit.

St. Ann staff directed calls for comments to the diocese.

When a reporter called the number to Romero's LaBelle home seeking comment about the allegations and settlements, a man said "I have no comment" and hung up.

Romero admitted to the Daily News in published reports in 2002 that he spent time at a Rhode Island treatment center for pedophile priests one year after arriving in Naples. Doctors there gave him a clean bill of health, he said.

McGrath wasn't aware of other Naples accusers. Any cases, she said, would be referred to the Archdiocese of Miami, which included St. Ann during Romero's time there.

Mary Ross Agosta, archdiocese spokeswoman, said allegations were referred to the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office.

Investigators closed a criminal inquiry into Romero and about two dozen past and present archdiocese clergy because too much time had passed to pursue legal action in June 2004, said Ed Griffith, a spokesman for the Miami-Dade prosecutor's office.

Two cases involving former St. Ann students now in their 40s accused Romero of fondling them as grade-school students and settled with the archdiocese for $150,000 each in November.

The archdiocese and diocese shared the cost of the $1.1 million February settlement in a case involving three siblings who said Romero would do chores naked in front of them and sexually abused them in the 1980s while a priest in a rural town near Lake Okeechobee. Romero, the suit stated, encouraged their mother to divorce her husband.

The siblings were identified in the suit only with initials.

The Diocese of Venice, which includes Catholic churches in Collier, Lee and seven other Southwest Florida counties, wasn't formed until 1984.

Archdiocese and diocese officials said insurance covered the hefty legal bills. None came from the parish faithfuls pocketbooks, they said.

Bishop John Nevins issued a statement in response to the February settlement through McGrath.

"We are deeply sorry for the destructive behavior that has been committed. This agreement is a compassionate and just settlement for those who have suffered terribly. My prayer is that God will bestow healing, reconciliation and peace on this family," he said.

The apology sharply contrasted the archdiocese's response to the settlements.

Agosta said the archdiocese wrapped up the internal Romero investigation but wouldn't divulge results. She noted the settlements didn't equate to Romero's guilt.

"The settlement with the alleged victims were civil and not criminal," she said. "When the Archdiocese of Miami learned of these allegations, we proceeded not only to conduct an investigation but begin the pastoral healing and counseling."

She declined to discuss whether Romero's accusers had sought the archdiocese's healing. The archdiocese has settled 31 of 35 civil cases alleging sexual abuse of minors by clergy in the past two years.

"We moved quickly as we possibly could to bring closure to these allegations," Agosta said.

A 42-year-old psychologist now living in Ireland rushed to settle with the archdiocese - though advised she could reap more - because she wanted to close the painful chapter in her life.

According to her suit, in which she is identified as G.H. for confidentiality, Romero would force her to remove her clothes and ask her to dedicate her body to him during her seventh- or eighth-grade year at St. Ann school.

"Though heavily veiled in legal jargon to protect them from prejudice, their offer was as close to an apology I imagine I'll ever receive. To me it is their acknowledgment of their responsibility for what happened," she wrote in a recent e-mail to the Daily News, noting she didn't feel comfortable "airing" the topic.

"It felt like salve to the wounds."

She said she partly accepted the "almost immediate offer" of $150,000, of which $50,000 went to Zelman, out of terror of facing the former priest in court.

"I dreaded having to face Romero in court ... yet I knew that I needed to overcome the fear in order to be free of the dreadful feelings that were resurrected when he resurfaced."

The woman's mother lives in Bonita Springs. The mother believes there are more potential Romero victims from St. Ann. When the mother brought concerns to an archdiocese priest in the mid-1970s, he pledged to yank Romero from the school and to never allow him unsupervised access to children again if she didn't sue, according to the suit.

That didn't happen. The family has since splintered from the Catholic Church.

"The anger is less because I've been active in doing something about it," the mother said. "We just have to drum on really, despite all of the (rebuttals)."

Another Zelman client - identified as B.C. in his suit - is a 41-year-old Collier County resident. His suit said Romero fondled him at the beach while a sixth- or seventh-grader in St. Ann Church's catechism class. Romero told the boy he needed a private lesson for missing a catechism class, according to the suit. He collected a $150,000 settlement in November.

The third St. Ann case handled by Zelman was settled in May 2004 for $135,000. It accused Romero of "inappropriate conduct" when the priest initiated a game of leapfrog with a 12-year-old and an overnight stay at the St. Ann rectory.

The remaining Romero case is set for an April trial. According to a Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office memo, investigators didn't pursue the case because they said the former altar boy didn't express interest in meeting with law enforcement.

The Diocese of Venice encourages anyone who has been abused to call its victims assistance minister at (941) 416-6114.

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