Catholic Church

Miami archdiocese suspends priest accused of sexual abuse

 

The archdiocese changed course Wednesday and suspended the Rev. Rolando Garcia, pastor of St. Agatha Church, after an Iraq veteran accused him of abuse in the 1990s inHollywood.

jweaver@MiamiHerald.com

When an Iraqi war veteran publicly accused the pastor of St. Agatha Catholic Church of sexually abusing him in the 1990s, the Archdiocese of Miami issued a statement admonishing the news media for not asking tougher questions of his lawyer about the molestation claims.

The archdiocese immediately countered Tuesday that the attorney had filed “several lawsuits” in the past against the archdiocese in which he accused St. Agatha’s Rolando Garcia of abusing boys. “And yet to date, none have been proven credible,” the archdiocese declared.

But late Wednesday, the archdiocese dramatically changed course, saying Garcia “was placed on administrative leave” because of the lawsuit brought by the war veteran, Tony Simmons.

The previous day, Simmons stood with his lawyer in front of St. Agatha in West Miami-Dade to announce he was a 16-year-old runaway when he met Garcia at the Church of the Little Flower in Hollywood in 1994.

At the news conference, Simmons said Garcia initially gave him help and counseling, but began to sexually abuse him after they went to a movie one night.

Simmons said Garcia later employed him as a painter at St. Agatha from 2001 to 2003, until he joined the Army.

“He controlled my job. He controlled where I lived. I was trapped,” Simmons, 34, told reporters gathered in front of St. Agatha. “If I didn’t do it then, you know, I don’t have a job, and if I don’t have a job, nowhere to live.”

Garcia, ordained as a priest in 1986 and St. Aga- tha’s pastor since 2001, has adamantly denied the abuse allegations.

Simmons’ lawyer, Jeffrey Herman, has filed four negligence suits against the archdiocese over the past decade in which his clients accused Garcia of sexually abusing them at churches in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

The archdiocese settled two of those cases, but maintained the victims’ accusations were not credible and that the settlements did not reflect misconduct by Garcia.

In August, the Miami archdiocese said it learned of a third complaint against Garcia. A man who had met Garcia when he was a seminarian in the early 1980s accused him of sexual abuse. The unidentified accuser, who said he came to Miami as part of the Mariel refugee boatlift, claimed Garcia regularly took him, when he was 15 years old, to his room at St. Vincent de Paul Seminary to stay overnight on weekends, according to the man’s lawsuit.

According to the archdiocese, Garcia was on vacation in Cuba when the initial complaint was brought to the attention of church officials. Archbishop Thomas Wenski placed him on administrative leave in August, and told him not to return to St. Agatha until an internal investigation was completed.

“Father Garcia was extremely cooperative, and voluntarily took a lie-detector test that supported his denial of having abused anyone at any time,” the archdiocese said in the news release issued Wednesday. The archdiocese also interviewed the alleged victim.

The archdiocese’s review board, consisting of an attorney, a medical doctor, a psychiatrist, a community leader and a clergy member, found that the allegation was “not credible,” the archdiocese said in the statement. Wenski adopted the board’s findings, and allowed Garcia to return to St. Agatha after a 10-day leave.

Garcia disclosed the outcome of the investigation to parishioners at Mass in late August. His accuser filed a lawsuit in September.

Then, this week, Simmons filed his suit against Garcia.

In an unusually assertive tone, the archdiocese reprimanded the media for failing to ask tougher questions of the alleged victim’s lawyer, Herman. He is a longtime adversary who has brought more than 100 lawsuits against the archdiocese since the clergy sex-abuse scandal broke a decade ago. The archdiocese has settled the vast majority of them, paying out tens of millions of dollars.

“Here are some suggestions to facilitate the media reporting a balanced story,” the archdiocese’s communications director, Mary Ross Agosta, wrote in Tuesday’s statement to the media.

“How did Mr. Herman find this alleged victim? . . . Why did the alleged victim wait so long to come forward? . . . Did this alleged victim tell anyone about this alleged abuse: the police, his parents, his teachers? Why was he homeless? What happened? Where did the alleged victim sleep? Does the alleged victim have any family? What does the alleged victim do now?”

During Tuesday’s news conference at St. Agatha, Herman described his client, Simmons, as “a highly decorated veteran who never really saw himself as a victim because he’s what we call a ‘compliant victim.’ ”

David Clohessy, a spokesman for the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests, a national advocacy group, condemned the archdiocese’s response.

“Raising questions about the victim’s family and one-time homelessness is stunningly mean-spirited and irrelevant,” Clohessy said.

At the news conference, Simmons said his sexual relationship with Garcia lasted from 1994 until he joined the U.S. Army in 2003. But he still called the priest.

During a phone conversation last week, Simmons said Garcia revealed that he had recently been accused of sexual abuse. “As soon as I found out that I was not the only person, it was my duty to really say something,” Simmons said. He then looked up news reports on the Internet about Garcia, and found the name of the plaintiffs’ attorney, Herman.

Simmons said he suffered multiple injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder while in the Army, from which he was discharged in 2010.

Simmons’ suit seeks more than $5 million in damages from the archdiocese, accusing church officials of covering up Garcia’s history as an alleged sexual predator.

Agosta said that when the archdiocese receives any allegation of sexual abuse, it reports the complaint to authorities, offers counseling to the alleged victim and accused priest, and conducts an internal investigation.

She said the policy — which follows rules set by Catholic bishops nationwide a decade ago — is called “Protecting God’s Children.”

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