Margate Secretary Set to Testify against Priest Is Accused of Financial Irregularities
By Jon Burstein
South Florida Sun-Sentinel [Margate FL]
August 1, 2006
A Margate church secretary poised to offer damaging testimony against a retired priest charged with molesting a boy was placed on paid administrative leave Monday by the parish's pastor.
Archdiocese of Miami officials said Theresa Gerstner was put on leave after a review of St. Vincent Catholic Church's financial records "produced information that could be identified as inappropriate spending of parish funds by [her]." Gerstner, who has worked at St. Vincent's for the past 20 years, has not been cooperating with an internal investigation, said Mary Ross Agosta, an Archdiocese spokeswoman.
The action comes two weeks after the public release of a sworn statement Gerstner gave to the Broward Sheriff's Office in the criminal case against the Rev. Neil Doherty. Doherty, 63, accused of molesting a boy over a seven-year span, faces eight counts of sexual battery and other charges. Doherty, a former priest at St. Vincent's, has pleaded not guilty and is free on a $70,000 bond.
Gerstner told a sheriff's detective that she read a journal kept by Doherty in which he detailed how he preyed on boys. She said Doherty surrounded himself with boys and, while she never saw any illicit behavior, she sensed something was wrong.
Gerstner's attorney, Mark Vieth, said he found Monday's decision by Father Joseph Maroor, the parish's pastor, to be "revealingly coincidental." Gerstner did nothing wrong, Vieth said.
"It's not a secret that I'm Ms. Gerstner's attorney in the first place because she anticipated she would suffer adverse employment actions as a result of her testimony against Neil Doherty and her whistle-blowing activities," said Vieth, a labor attorney in Miami who handles whistle-blower cases.
Agosta said the investigation into St. Vincent's finances has been going on for more than six months.
"Today's decision resulted only from the irregularities found in the study of the employee's work with parish finances over the past two years and is in no way related to her cooperation with the State Attorney," according to a statement by the Archdiocese. Agosta said the Archdiocese first discovered financial inconsistencies during an audit.
Vieth said Gerstner learned of inquiries into the parish's finances three weeks ago. The investigation apparently is related to whether she has receipts for charges made on the parish's credit card, Vieth said.
Vieth said it appears obvious that the Archdiocese intends to fire Gerstner. She was asked to clear out her personal belongings from the office, he said.
"People who end up testifying against the church usually do not end up finding favor with the church," Vieth said.
Gerstner, who has been a parish member since 1972, declined to comment Monday.
When a detective first approached Gerstner in December 2005 about Doherty, "She immediately put her hands to her face," according to a Broward Sheriff's report. She told the detective she needed to consult an attorney because she feared losing her job and pension if she talked to him.
Agosta said the Archdiocese encouraged Gerstner to cooperate with police. Vieth said he doesn't think the Archdiocese ever encouraged or discouraged her from talking to detectives.
In a January sworn statement, Gerstner told a detective she believes the church knew since the 1970s of sexual molestation accusations against Doherty. She said she took Doherty's journal after he left the church in 2002 but she can't find it.
The Archdiocese agreed last month to settle six separate sexual abuse cases against former clergy members, including Doherty, for $750,000. Civil lawsuits have accused Doherty of drugging and raping young boys as far back as 1973.
Jon Burstein can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4491.
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