Tony Simmons says he ran away from his parents’ home and was living on the streets when the Rev. Rolando Garcia offered him a helping hand at the Church of the Little Flower in Hollywood.
“I was pretty lost,” Simmons, 34, told The Miami Herald. “Father Garcia was the only person who talked to me. He was my friend.”
Last week, Simmons, a decorated U.S. Army specialist who served in the Iraq war, accused Garcia in a lawsuit of sexually abusing him during the mid-1990s, starting when he was 16 years old.
For the first time in recent memory, Miami’s Catholic Church leaders reacted defensively to his negligence suit, the latest of more than 100 filed against the local archdiocese since the clergy-sex abuse scandal broke nationwide a decade ago.
Even before church officials saw Simmons’ suit, the archdiocese issued an unprecedented statement on Tuesday suggesting that if the news media wanted to write a “balanced story,” reporters should ask Simmons’ lawyer where he found him as a client, why he took so long to come forward and why was he homeless?
The Archdiocese of Miami’s official response heightened a controversy already enveloping Garcia, now pastor of St. Agatha Catholic Church in West Miami-Dade, who had been accused of abuse in three previous lawsuits brought by a trio of other alleged victims.
The archdiocese settled two of those complaints, though Garcia was not found liable in the settlements.
In the third complaint, lodged in August, the archdiocese found the allegations “not credible,” saying in a news statement released Wednesday that Garcia “voluntarily took a lie-detector test that supported his denial of having abused anyone at any time.”
The alleged victim, a Mariel boatlift refugee who said he had met Garcia as a seminarian in the early 1980s, was also interviewed by archdiocese lawyers. But the accuser did not take a polygraph test. No other details were disclosed, and there has been no settlement in that case.
In all three instances, Garcia was placed on temporary suspension and later restored to his leadership post.
But hundreds of St. Agatha School parents remained outraged, pushing for Garcia’s removal as pastor in a petition posted in September on Facebook.
“We feel that the integrity as well as the reputation of our school and church has been continually tarnished by past and present allegations against Father Garcia,” the parents wrote in the petition. “There is a genuine feeling of disgust at the lack of action by both St. Agatha School and the Archdiocese of Miami.”
On Wednesday, the archdiocese placed Garcia, who has served as St. Agatha’s pastor since 2001, on administrative leave while it investigates the fourth abuse complaint, which was lodged by Simmons in a lawsuit filed the previous day in Miami-Dade Circuit Court.
Garcia, who was born in Cuba and ordained as a priest in 1986, hung up on a Miami Herald reporter who reached him on his cellphone Friday.
After Simmons’ suit was filed, the archdiocese’s communications director zeroed in on his lawyer, Jeff Herman, a longtime archdiocese adversary. In an official statement issued Tuesday, Mary Ross Agosta wrote: “Mr Herman has filed several lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Miami involving Fr. Garcia and yet to date, none have been proven credible.”