A retired South Florida priest, accused by several men of sexually abusing them in their youth, will go to prison for 12 to 15 years under the terms of a plea bargain he accepted Monday in Broward Circuit Court.
The Rev. Neil Doherty, 69, pleaded no contest to six charges of lewd and lascivious acts upon a child for alleged repeated sexual assaults committed in the mid- to late-1990s on a man who is now 26-years-old and living out of state.
Circuit Judge Kenneth Gillespie accepted the plea deal and said he will sentence Doherty on Jan. 28. Upon sentencing, Doherty will be required to register as a sexual offender.
Doherty, who has been held in county jail for two years, said little during the hearing. He was grizzled and clad in tan jail scrubs and shackles.
He appeared confused when the judge asked if Doherty waived his right to assert a defense on grounds that the statute of limitations had expired on the eight charges against him. Those charges included two for sexual battery on a child, four for lewd or lascivious acts upon a child, and two for lewd and lascivious molestation.
As part of the plea deal, prosecutors reduced the two charges of sexual battery on a child — capital felonies punishable by up to life in prison — to lewd or lascivious acts upon a child, which are second-degree felonies and carry a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison each. Prosecutors also dropped the charges of molestation.
When Gillespie asked Doherty if he wanted the case over, Doherty said, “That is correct.’’
Doherty allegedly began to abuse the victim whose accusations led to Monday’s plea hearing when the boy was about 10 years old. The abuse lasted for more than three years, according to the charges.
During the colloquy, Gillespie said the victim lived across the street from St. Vincent Catholic Church in Margate when he first met Doherty, then a parish priest there.
The two developed a friendship, and Doherty manipulated the boy into believing that he could trust the priest with his most private thoughts, Gillespie said.
The abuse began when Doherty invited the boy to his house for “some version of confession,’’ Gillespie said.
Instead of spiritual counseling, though, the priest gave the boy a drink that contained an unidentified drug. The boy lost consciousness, Gillespie said, and awoke to discover he had been sodomized. The priest also placed some money in the boy’s pocket.
“This cycle continued for a while,’’ Gillespie said, adding that the boy developed an illicit drug dependency that Doherty enabled with cash gifts.
But Doherty’s defense attorney, David Bogenschutz, denied the accusations.
“We do not agree with those facts,’’ he told Gillespie.
By pleading no contest, Doherty maintains his innocence but assumes the penalty of a conviction.
He also averts a trial, and will not have to face his victim on the witness stand.
But the man, who has not been identified, does plan to attend the sentencing, said David Siegel, the assistant state attorney who prosecuted the case.
Outside the courtroom, Bogenschutz said Doherty’s physical health is failing in the county jail, and that he will receive better care in state custody. He said Doherty has suffered some “psychological problems’’ while in jail, but nothing that would render the priest incompetent to stand trial or understand the charges against him.