Ex-Naples priest faces new sex abuse suit

Naples Daily News

A former St. Ann's altar boy is the latest accuser of William Romero, who also faces a Miami criminal probe

Tuesday, October 14, 2003
By ALAN SCHER ZAGIER

They tried to be good Catholics.

When their son said he had been sexually abused by Father Willie in the rectory of St. Ann Catholic Church, the Naples couple was dumbfounded. They turned to another priest for help.

He told them to keep quiet, for the good of the church. In return, they were promised the Rev. William Romero would leave St. Ann and never again work as a parish priest or in unsupervised settings with children.

That was in 1976. Earlier this month, the former altar boy and St. Ann student - now a 40-year-old married father living in Lee County - filed suit against Romero and the archbishop of Miami, claiming church leaders broke the secret pact by quietly transferring the wayward priest to other parishes, where he would abuse more children.

"This is their church. This is where they prayed," said Naples attorney Ted Zelman, referring to the decision by the victim's parents a generation ago to trust their spiritual leaders rather than go to police or the court system.

Southwest Florida was part of the Miami archdiocese until 1984, when Catholic churches in Collier, Lee, Sarasota and seven other counties became part of the new Diocese of Venice. That's why the lawsuit was filed in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court and names Archbishop John C. Favarola as a defendant along with Romero.

The victim, who through Zelman declined an interview request, is identified in court papers only as "A.B."

According to the legal complaint, Romero gradually "initiated inappropriate conduct" with the victim when the boy was 12 or 13, first at the child's home through a game of leapfrog and later on an overnight stay at the St. Ann rectory.

When the altar boy arrived at St. Ann for what he thought was a group sailing trip with his youth pastor and catechism teacher, he realized no other students were present. Later that night, after returning from a movie with another priest, Romero persuaded the boy to shower with him, the lawsuit states. Romero proceeded to touch the boy's sexual organs while masturbating himself.

The 66-year-old former priest - who resigned from the clergy earlier this year amid an internal diocese probe of sex abuse complaints - could not be reached for comment, despite phone calls to his LaBelle home. A spokeswoman for the Miami archdiocese also could not be reached.

Romero faces two other sex abuse lawsuits in Miami. In June, a one-time altar boy at St. Augustine Catholic Church in Coral Gables lodged a complaint charging Romero with raping him inside a church office in 1975, just months before the priest was sent to Naples.

And in August, three siblings accused Romero of abusing them from 1982 through 1989 while he served as parish priest at St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church in Moore Haven, a farming town on the shores of Lake Okeechobee. Romero had met the two boys and their sister several years earlier as pastor of St. Christopher's Parish in Hobe Sound, which straddles the Palm Beach-Martin County border.

In that case, a sailboat trip also was used to lure the children away from home, according to the complaint. After moving the three siblings into his home during summer vacations, Romero took weekly showers with the 9-year-old sister and regularly had sex with her two brothers, the lawsuit charges.

Two years later he molested the girl on a group sailing trip, said attorney Jason Weisser, who, at an August press conference in West Palm Beach, displayed photographs of Romero cooking at a stove, floating on a raft, and windsurfing - all while naked. The photos were taken by the priest's victims, Weisser said.

Southwest Florida prosecutors and law enforcement officers have declined to investigate Romero for possible criminal violations, citing the absence of any victims coming forward as well as a statute of limitations for filing criminal charges.

However, a Miami prosecutor has initiated his own investigation of the alleged assault on the 10-year-old altar boy in Coral Gables after learning of the allegations through news accounts.

Under state law, sex abuse charges involving victims who are minors but older than 12 generally must be filed within three years after the abuse took place or three years after the victim turns 16. But if the victims were younger than 12 at the time and the abuse involved sexual penetration, there is no statute of limitations.

In several previous interviews, Romero openly discussed his troubled past, recounting a series of abuse accusations in Miami, where he was ordained in the mid-1960s, and a stint in a Rhode Island treatment center for pedophile priests.

Romero, who is white, acknowledged being the subject of a paternity suit in a case he said was dropped when the girl who accused him gave birth to a black child.

In another case, while chaplain for Miami's juvenile court in the late 1960s, Romero was accused of attempted rape and stabbing a girl in the breast, he said. According to Romero, the girl's father admitted to the crime and was sent to prison.

After leaving Naples, Romero said he was sent by church officials to Rhode Island, where doctors gave him a clean bill of health.

Romero has lived in LaBelle, east of Fort Myers in rural Hendry County, for the past decade after retiring from the active priesthood. He continued to serve on a fill-in basis until the Diocese of Venice suspended him in 2002.

When reports of his troubles as a priest surfaced last year, a California-based exchange program removed two high school students from Romero's home. But the former priest continues to host foreign students on his own, he said in a June interview.

Two such students from Germany told Weisser that they, too, were abused by Romero while living with him in Moore Haven, the attorney said.

In previous interviews, Romero blamed the mounting accusations against him on a nationwide witch hunt against priests that he said was driven by "false memory" and a desire to "collect money."

"I guess it's just one of the hazards of working with youth," he has said. "I can give you a million people who would speak good of me."

In the Naples case, Zelman said his client's parents struck a deal with Romero's supervisor, the Rev. Thomas Goggin, to refrain from pursuing legal action in exchange for his assurance that Romero would no longer work with children or as a parish priest.

According to the suit, Goggin went to the movies with Romero the night of the alleged abuse inside the rectory.

But whether Romero's immediate supervisor knew about any sexual misconduct will be difficult to determine. Goggin, a Naples fixture who later moved to a church in Fort Myers Beach, died last year after a bout with Lou Gehrig's disease.

Zelman said his client is looking for an apology and recognition by church leaders of what happened as well as monetary compensation.

"It's a very sad episode in the history of the church in general and in Naples," he said. "I hope this lawsuit brings some closure, for my client and for the community."

Zelman & Hanlon, P.A. Florida Legal Elite 2013 ABA American Bar Association