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Sex abuse lawsuit against former St. Ann’s priest settled

Saturday, May 22, 2004

A former St. Ann Catholic School student will collect $135,000 from the Archdiocese of Miami in the first settlement among a spate of sexual misconduct lawsuits against William Romero, an ex-Naples priest.

A deal in the civil suit against Romero and Miami Archbishop John C. Favarola was reached earlier this month, said Ted Zelman, the victim’s attorney. Archdiocese leaders initiated the settlement, he said.

“They were apologetic,” said Zelman. “It was clear they weren’t disputing that something bad had happened.”

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.

Zelman’s client Â- identified in court papers only as “A.B.” to protect his identity Â- accused Romero of initiating “inappropriate conduct” with the victim in 1976, when the boy was 12, 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 Romero, 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 charged. Romero proceeded to touch the boy’s sexual organs while masturbating himself.

The 66-year-old former priest, who resigned from the clergy last year amid an internal diocese probe of sex abuse complaints, could not be reached for comment Friday at his LaBelle home. A spokeswoman for the Miami archdiocese declined to discuss the case other than to acknowledge a settlement had been reached.

Romero still faces two other sex abuse lawsuits filed last year in Miami.

In one case, a former 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.

In the other suit, three siblings have 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, the complaint charges.

Zelman said he settled the case at the instruction of his client, now a 40-year-old married father who recently moved from Lee County to California.

“He wanted to put it behind him,” the Naples attorney said.

While apologetic, Miami archdiocese leaders also attempted to explain away Romero’s misconduct as the behavior of an isolated bad apple, according to Zelman.

That justification seemed to overlook the church’s responsibility in shipping out of town a troubled priest who previously faced sex crime allegations, he said.

“To my mind, (archdiocese officials) just didn’t seem to comprehend that moving a priest from parish to parish was not inevitable,” said Zelman.

In several previous interviews with the Daily News, Romero openly discussed his troubled past.

The former priest, who is white, acknowledged being the subject of a paternity suit in a Miami 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 was sent by church officials to a Rhode Island treatment center for pedophile priests, 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.

In the three siblings’ pending case, Romero has admitted to sexual misconduct with a Port St. Lucie teenager, behavior he labeled as “spontaneous moments of intimacy” intended to improve the troubled teen’s mental health.

In a rambling, seven-page narrative filed late last year in response to that suit, Romero acknowledged “a half dozen” incidents of mutual masturbation with the teen he met at the Hobe Sound parish.

Romero also wrote that Diocese of Venice Bishop John J. Nevins knew about the sex abuse allegations at least seven years before the troubled priest’s suspension. Through a spokeswoman, Nevins has consistently declined to discuss the complaints against Romero.

According to the complaint filed by the former Naples altar boy, the victim’s parents were told by the Rev. Thomas Goggin, Romero’s supervisor at St. Ann, that the priest known as Father Willie would never again work as a parish priest or in unsupervised settings with children.

Goggin, a Naples fixture who later moved to a church in Fort Myers Beach, died in 2002 after a bout with Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Zelman said his client now feels vindicated after struggling with feelings of pain and betrayal for nearly three decades.

“He was happier than almost any client I’ve had in my career,” the attorney said. “The feelings he’s had for the last 25 years were finally validated by people other than himself.

“There was a recognition that this really did happen.”

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