Retired priest gets 15 years for child sex crimes

The Rev. Neil Doherty was sentenced to 15 years in prison as part of a plea deal he accepted on Jan. 14 for alleged repeated sexual assaults committed in the mid- to late-1990s on a man who is now an adult.

01/28/2013 8:37 AM

01/28/2013 6:50 PM

Judgment day came Monday for the Rev. Neil Doherty, a retired South Florida priest accused by several men of sexually abusing them in their youth, when a Broward judge sentenced Doherty to 15 years in state prison for the repeated sexual assault of a child in the mid- to late-1990s.

Doherty, 69, appeared frail as he stood hunched and shackled before Circuit Judge Kenneth Gillespie, who announced that he had delivered “the maximum sentence I can impose’’ under the terms of a plea bargain that the disgraced Catholic priest accepted earlier this month in Broward Circuit Court.

Doherty did not speak as Gillespie told him he also would have to register as a sex offender.

But Doherty did have to face two of his accusers, who were not the victims in the criminal case but testified in open court about the traumatic sexual abuse that Doherty had visited upon them decades ago.

Dennis Montero, 43, said when he first met Doherty, the priest had a reputation for helping troubled youth.

“Father Neil told me he was going to help me,’’ Montero said.

Instead, Montero testified, Doherty repeatedly plied him with wine and drugs until he passed out.

“When I awoke,’’ Montero said, “I was naked and sexually abused.’’

Jorge Soler, 39, testified that, like the victim in the criminal case, who was not identified, Soler, too, had suffered lasting damage into adulthood from the sexual abuse that Doherty inflicted upon him.

Soler said he had been imprisoned and institutionalized over the years as he struggled to cope with “what Doherty did to me and my brother.’’

While the victim in the criminal case did not testify, he did write a letter that was read aloud in court by Jeffrey Herman, a lawyer who said he represents dozens of men who as boys were sexually abused by Doherty and other priests.

“Neil Doherty going to prison sends a clear message: You will go to prison if you molest children,’’ Herman read from the letter.

The victim’s letter also urged parents to teach their children about the dangers of sexual abuse, and to remember that strangers are not necessarily the greatest threat.

“He was my neighbor and a trusted member of the community,’’ the man wrote of Doherty.

Doherty’s defense attorney, David Bogenschutz, did not dispute the allegations against his client.

“It’s not like I can cross examine a letter,’’ Bogenschutz said to the judge.

But Bogenschutz did present a forensic psychologist who testified that Doherty’s physical and mental health are deteriorating significantly.

Dr. Michael Brannon said the results of repeated psychological evaluations conducted on the priest since about 2006 show that Doherty is “frail and sometimes confused.’’

“His memory has deteriorated significantly,’’ Brannon said of Doherty, to the point that the priest cannot recall the full details of the crimes of which he is accused.

Brannon added that Doherty exhibits denial about his medical problems, including liver disease and diabetes, and refuses to admit emotional challenges, such as frequent depression.

He added that Doherty is resigned to accept his fate, and does not interact with others in jail.

“There’s a hopelessness about him,’’ Brannon said.

But a prosecutor challenged Brannon when the psychologist tried to present Doherty as having a low probability of repeating sexual crimes against children because of his advanced age and his removal from any position of authority within the church.

Dennis Siegel, the assistant state attorney prosecuting the case, established that Doherty had lied repeatedly in the past about his alcoholism, his depression and his health problems.

Siegel also elicited agreement from Brannon that Doherty’s primary sexual interest remains young teens, and that the priest has “impulse control issues.’’ Siegel cited a 1992 psychological evaluation of Doherty that found the priest has a “strong narcissistic tendency with denial and a sense of entitlement.’’

Outside the courtroom, Montero and Soler expressed relief that justice had been served, but mourned the many lives they said Doherty had ruined.

“He left a wreckage of lives in his wake,’’ Montero said.

Bogenschutz said the judge’s sentence did not come as a surprise.

“We got what we bargained for,’’ he said.

Bogenschutz acknowledged the strong possibility that Doherty will die in jail, and said the priest’s last years were a strong consideration during plea negotiations.

“He was looking at 800 months in prison,’’ Bogenschutz said. “This will give him some chance of meaningful life after [the sentence is served].’’

Under the terms of the agreement that Doherty accepted on Jan. 14, the priest 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.

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.

By pleading no contest, Doherty maintains his innocence but assumes the penalty of a conviction. He will receive credit for the 842 days he has spent in a Broward jail as of Monday.

Doherty spent three decades serving in Broward and Miami-Dade parishes, including St. Vincent in Margate, St. Anthony in Fort Lauderdale, and St. Phillip in Northwest Miami-Dade.

He was director of vocations, or the priest in charge of recruiting and screening young men who were candidates to the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Miami from 1984 to about 1991.

He has a long list of accusers who say he used his position of power to drug and rape them when they were boys. Some of the accusations date back to the 1970s but came to light only in recent years.

Prior to the sentencing on Monday, Fr. Chanel Jeanty, the chancellor of canonical affairs for the Archdiocese of Miami, testified that the church had received 34 complaints of child sexual abuse by Doherty over the years.

The Archdiocese of Miami issued a written statement Monday in response to Doherty’s sentencing, expressing regret for the priest’s actions, and reminding followers that the church has instituted a new policy that requires extensive background checks of clergy and employees, and that provides awareness training for adults and children.

“With today’s sentencing of Neil Doherty, justice was served,’’ the statement read. “Neil Doherty was removed from priestly ministry by Archbishop Favalora on April 2002.

“We continue to pray for the healing of those whom he victimized as well as for all young people who have been abused by an adult in a position of trust. That a priest would give scandal in this way both angers and shames us.’’

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