Clergy Sexual Abuse
August 15, 2002
As appears in the Catholic Virginian August 18, 2002
When I became diocesan bishop, I chose as my motto, “To Unite All In Christ.” That pledge to
reconciliation and unity now meets an enormous challenge. Never did I imagine back in 1974, when
I began as your bishop, that clergy sexual abuse was growing like a cancer within the church. I
could never have predicted the scandal that is disrupting our diocese, and dioceses throughout the
country. Like a cancer, the disruption has spread. It tears at the heart of innocent victims and their
families. It fractures the harmony of our diocesan community. It rips the spirit of our committed
In recent months, I have been looking into instances where it has been proven, or there are
allegations that some of our priests sexually abused minors decades ago. This included a two-month
internal investigation into claims against Father John Leonard. The claims alleged that he was
involved in sexual misconduct in the 1970s with students at our former seminary in Goochland
County. During the investigation, I removed Father Leonard as pastor of St. Michael parish in
Richmond. I reinstated him when I could not find sufficient cause to end his priestly ministry.
A large storm of controversy arose immediately when several persons went to the news media to
criticize the investigation and protest my decision. The controversy has been nonstop ever since,
with reports almost every day, many times a day, in the newspapers, on radio and TV. New and
harrowing renditions of allegations flooded the news. Some members of the diocesan sex abuse
panel publicly announced their resignations, holding up professional credentials to denounce my
actions and judgment. Even as I write this Tidings, almost two months after my decision, a local
editor just published false accusations that I by-passed the sexual abuse panel, did not follow the
recommendations of the panel’s investigators and have cast aspersions on the accusers.
I want the people of the diocese to understand clearly that the sexual abuse panel had a team
investigating allegations against Father Leonard. That team presented its full findings and
recommendations to me. Any suggestions that I made my decision apart from the panel’s team, or
without considering the report of that team are absolutely false.
It was only after I had deliberated, formulated and announced my decision that I was told the panel
had not seen the team report. That team was supposed to report its findings and recommendations to
the panel when it reported the same to me. That team never did so. What is worse, the panel
member who resigned because the panel never got its report sat on the very team that failed to
report to the panel. It is incorrect to say that I circumvented the panel.
It is also noteworthy that the team was demanding a quick decision from me while leaving the panel
without any information about its own investigation.
To say that I did not follow the team’s recommendations is untruthful. I have honestly stated what
the team advised and I did not ignore its recommendations. The team wanted me to remove Father
Leonard from his parish to be psychologically evaluated. I did that.
I had already removed him with an administrative leave. And, in fact, Father Leonard was evaluated
twice prior to the team’s suggestions. He was thoroughly tested while on administrative leave. Also,
because of a previous allegation, he underwent a week-long battery of tests in 1996. Both sets of
evaluations, carried out by numerous mental health professionals, ruled out anything in Father
Leonard’s makeup that would warrant removing him from priestly ministry.
In fact, the team itself did not recommend that I end Father Leonard’s priestly ministry. Rather,
their recommendation was to reassign Father Leonard according to the results of the psychological
evaluation. That is exactly what I did when, after considering the results of the two evaluations, I
ended Father Leonard’s leave of absence and returned him to be pastor at St. Michael parish.
It is wrong to misinterpret as aspersions on the accusers’ legitimate concerns that I have from the
investigation, and after it. I have not criticized the former students for bringing their accusations to
the diocese, nor have I contradicted what they reported during the investigation. I remain troubled
over consistent reports of a vengeful grudge, which I have never attributed to the accusers, but
which could be operating against Father Leonard. I never liked the cloak of secrecy that surrounded
the investigation, even to the point that the team felt compelled to warn me of lawsuits. This is all
the more perplexing because I kept my lips sealed about specifics, only to find lurid and
embellished details in the press or to watch talk-show-like interviews on TV and radio.
As all that controversy swelled, two other allegations against two other priests came to resolution.
As a result, in the past two weeks I had to remove those two priests (Father Julian Goodman and
Father John Blankenship) from all public ministries because each had unquestionably abused a
minor sexually in the 1970s.
The controversy reached its peak this past weekend when Mr. Bruce Jeter, another former seminary
student, reintroduced to the news media a previously unproven claim against Father John Leonard.
In 1996, Bruce Jeter accused Father Leonard of sexually abusing him in front of two seminary
students back in 1970. Bruce Jeter named the two witnesses back then, but upon inquiry the other
students vigorously denied the allegation. A subsequent battery of psychological testing cleared
Father Leonard from wrongdoing (I referenced this earlier as the first set of psychological
evaluations done on Father Leonard). Mr. Jeter now claims that Father Leonard first drugged him
and then raped him.
The seriousness of this allegation, and the public notoriety surrounding it, makes it imperative that I
get to the truth of what really took place at St. John Vianney Seminary in Goochland County while
Father Leonard was on the faculty and later served as rector. Throughout this entire public ordeal of
new and changing accusations, Father Leonard has steadfastly claimed his innocence. Therefore,
I’ve turned the entire matter over to the Goochland authorities for their full investigation. That
investigation began this week and I have pledged my full cooperation. I will provide to law
enforcement authorities any and all the information the diocese has gathered so they can determine
a resolution to this matter once and for all.
As bishop, I found myself in a “Catch 22” when I judged the matter in Father Leonard’s favor and
reinstated him as pastor of St. Michael parish. This was not like the situations with Fathers Julian
Goodman and John Blankenship where their own admissions gave sure proof of the allegations
against them. Because there was no clear proof of the accusations against Father Leonard, and with
significant information to support his possible innocence, I have not removed him from priestly
At the same time, I did not exonerate Father Leonard either. I said on many occasions that it appears
Father Leonard crossed some boundaries and used poor judgment in his position as an authority
figure. The accusers who came forward in this investigation did not charge Father Leonard with any
Again, in the case of Mr. Bruce Jeter’s claim which surfaced in the media only after this more
recent investigation, Mr. Jeter’s own named witnesses did not corroborate the claim when he
brought it to me in 1996.
For the diocese to investigate allegations against a priest from numerous accusers is no simple
matter. The diocese does not have the skills of a detective agency or the resources of law
enforcement officials to sift through all the conflicting information, the memories that stretch back
over decades and the varying assessments offered by professionals. This is why the U.S. Catholic
Bishops voted in Dallas to give full cooperation when claims from the past are turned over to civil
authorities. This is why, even when Father Leonard’s accusers had not yet approached the law with
their claims, I asked the Commonwealth’s attorney in Goochland to open an investigation.
This action in no way implies Father Leonard is guilty of any crime; in the United States a person is
innocent until proven guilty. Instead, I want to restore unity and to bring about healing in a situation
that has already created too much pain and discord in too many lives and in the life of the entire
diocese. We cannot have reconciliation here until we have the truth. It does not serve the truth when
conscientious endeavors to respond to accusations are twisted into unfounded and sensational
charges of cover-ups, deception, favoritism and wrongdoing by the bishop. Those who put these
matters on trial in the media will hopefully be called upon to make an accounting before
independent and impartial criminal investigators.
I am moving forward to address other situations, some related to deceased priests and others
seemingly involving false accusations, while some others are requiring further attention and inquiry.
I cannot irresponsibly divulge every detail all at once to satisfy the curious or to feed those who
thrive on the sensational. All these situations touch on other people’s lives, their privacy and their
I have not wavered from zero tolerance, nor am I less committed to right the wrongs of the past. In
1992 I immediately implemented the recommendation of the U.S. Catholic Bishops to establish a
diocesan policy on the protection of children. I told our priests then that I would visit them in prison
if they abused a child. Thankfully, none of the situations I am looking into now involve current
abuse. All the allegations coming forth date back over 20 years ago and none relate to abuse after
1992. We are currently restructuring our sexual abuse panel in accord with the Bishops’ Charter
from Dallas. The majority will be laypersons – level-headed, knowledgeable and respected
individuals who are not employed by the diocese.
I welcome and appreciate the prayers and words of encouragement from the Catholic people of our
diocese for which these matters have become a public embarrassment. In the words of a member of
one of our parishes who attended a prayer service in Tidewater this weekend, “The Catholic church
is a beautiful, wonderful institution. It just needs to be cleansed.” I add to her sentiments my desire
for us to undergo a real purification, and my promise to continue working hard to clean up this mess
created by clergy and other church personnel who have sexually abused minors.
Our diocese is blessed in having outstanding and dedicated priests who have committed their lives
to be of service to our people. We keep them in prayer during these difficult days. Our people love
the Church, and are committed to persevere in their faith even in these hard times. May the Spirit
guide all of us in these days ahead.