State Lawmakers Propose Bills Stemming from Catholic Church's Sex Abuse Scandal

By Alan Scher Zagier
Naples Daily News [Naples FL]
February 24, 2003

With reports of priest misconduct rocking pews from Marco Island to the Panhandle, state legislators are poised to consider several proposals to significantly rewrite Florida's laws on child sexual abuse.

Lawmakers returning to Tallahassee next week will debate a bill that would add priests and other clergy members to the list of professionals - including doctors, teachers and police officers - explicitly required to report abuse or neglect charges to child welfare officials.

Another proposal would overhaul child abuse laws by eliminating any right of privileged communication for abusers who disclose their crimes to priests during confession; broaden the statute of limitations for filing civil lawsuits in child sex abuse cases; and set criminal penalties for church leaders and others who knowingly fail to report abuse complaints to authorities.

"Child abuse is child abuse, regardless if it's in a church," said state Sen. Lesley Miller Jr., a Tampa Democrat and sponsor of a bill to add clergy members to the list of professionals compelled to report abuse to the Department of Children and Families. "I don't see how anyone could oppose this."

The Tallahassee proposals mirror the efforts of abuse victims and newly energized Catholic reformers in state capitals across the country, including California, Kentucky and New York. Those seeking the changes say that tougher laws can accomplish what internal church reform efforts have yet to realize.

"We're really pushing for legislative change, because that seems to be the only way to get accountability," said Melissa Price, founder of the St. Petersburg chapter of the Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. "The church moves very slowly. For a lot of survivors, this is such a pressing issue, they don't have the years to wait for internal reform."

SNAP members in Florida have worked closely with state Rep. Anne Gannon, D-Delray Beach, to help draft a sweeping revision of child abuse laws, said Price. Gannon could not be reached for comment, and her bill has yet to be formally introduced, but a legislative aide in her office provided a draft version to the Daily News.

Among the proposed changes:

a.. Give adults who suffered sex abuse as children but did not file civil complaints before the statute of limitations expired a two-year grace period in which to seek legal redress, starting Jan. 1, 2004. Current law requires such complaints to be filed by age 25 or within four years after discovering "that psychological injury or other illness ... was caused by the abuse."

b.. Classify the failure to report abuse complaints as a first-degree misdemeanor;

c.. Eliminate the implied exemption for clergy members who learn of abuse during confession.

Gail McGrath, a spokeswoman for the Diocese of Venice, said she and other church officials could not comment about the proposed legislation without examining the particulars. But as for the provision to add clergy members to the list of professionals required to report abuse, McGrath said such an amendment would be redundant.

"That wouldn't make any difference," she said. "Priests are already mandated as reporters."

McGrath referred further questions to the Florida Catholic Conference, which monitors laws that affect the Roman Catholic Church. The conference's executive director could not be reached for comment late Friday.

One thing the Gannon legislation does not do - unlike a law on the books in California and under consideration in a dozen other states - is address the statute of limitations for filing criminal charges in child sex abuse cases.

For victims who are minors 12 and older, Florida law generally requires criminal charges to be filed within three years after the abuse took place or three years after the victim turns 16. If the victim is younger than 12 at the time of abuse and it involves sexual penetration, there is no limitation on when prosecutors can file charges.

Locally, those restrictions have prevented prosecutors from aggressively pursuing child sex abuse allegations against two retired priests with Naples ties: the Rev. William Romero, a LaBelle resident who previously taught at St. Ann Catholic School; and the Rev. Neil Flemming, who served at St. William Catholic Church and later became diocesan treasurer and a trusted adviser to Bishop John Nevins of the Diocese of Venice, which supervises Catholic parishes in Collier, Lee, Sarasota and seven other Southwest Florida counties.

Romero and Flemming were suspended by the diocese in May 2002 and remain under internal investigation. Under a policy adopted by the nation's Roman Catholic bishops late last year, the two retired priests will appear before a private church tribunal, a process that will likely extend the inquiry for another year.

Five months ago, former Lee County sex crimes prosecutor Steve Russell was one of four candidates for state attorney in Collier and Lee counties. Prior to the election, Russell said he would ask prosecutors or local law enforcement to investigate the allegations against Romero and Flemming if there was a "reasonable basis to believe" abuse had been committed.

In a June 2002 interview with the Daily News, Romero acknowledged being sent to a Rhode Island treatment center specializing in treating sexual disorders among clergy members just one year after he left St. Ann's in 1977. He also recounted two earlier accusations of child sex abuse - charges he denied.

After retiring from the priesthood a decade ago, Romero became active in an international exchange program for high school students, serving not only as a "host parent" but also as a volunteer area coordinator who screened other parents for their fitness for duty.

One of those parents told the Daily News that Romero described showing a foreign student how to use toilet paper, presumably because the young man came from a culture with primitive sanitary practices. In another instance, Romero demonstrated the proper way to bathe by taking a shower with the high-schooler, the parent said.

Romero housed six or seven male students, most from Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia, through his work with California-based Pacific Intercultural Exchange - disregarding a warning by diocese officials that church policy forbids priests from living in the same home with anyone other than relatives or other priests.

In an interview last week, Russell - who took office in January as the region's state attorney - said the Romero case still lacks a formal, sworn complaint, thus limiting prosecutors' ability to further investigate the published reports.

"I certainly would pursue them if we had some specific complaint or some basis to proceed," he said. "There are certainly some reasons for suspicion."

"The problem is, do you come back years later and start interviewing people," he said. "It becomes a toss-up between a witch hunt and a reasonably focused investigation based on some articulable evidence or some specific complaint."

At the same time, Russell said the published reports about priest sex abuse in Southwest Florida have prompted him to ask local police departments and sheriff's offices in the five-county 20th Judicial Circuit to review their records for any complaints involving abuse by clergy. He emphasized that neither Romero nor Flemming are officially under investigation.

As a prosecutor, Russell said the proposed legislative changes - as well as other, more stringent ones not yet on the table - may be the best tool available to cracking down on sex offenders in the clergy, as well as in the larger society.

"I certainly view allegations of sexual abuse very seriously," he said. "It's an appropriate issue for the Legislature to reassess in light of some of the issues that have emerged in Florida and around the country."

"Some people who have been sexually molested or abused often suppress that for many years," he added. "The possibility of a longer (criminal) statute of limitations may be appropriate."


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