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.
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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.
“Mentally and emotionally he’s doing fine,’’ his lawyer said.
Bogenschutz added that the reduction of the capital felonies to second-degree felonies “turned the screw’’ on the plea deal.
Doherty spent three decades serving in Broward and Miami-Dade parishes, including St. Vincent, St. Anthony in Fort Lauderdale and St. Phillip in Northwest Miami-Dade.
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.
Documents released in 2006 as part of the Broward case included an interview with the priest’s longtime secretary, who said the archdiocese was aware of allegations that Doherty had been engaging in inappropriate relationships with young boys.
Despite the many civil suits filed against him, this will be the first criminal punishment for Doherty as a result of the accusations.
In most cases, criminal charges could not be filed because the statute of limitations had passed.
However, several civil cases involving Doherty have been settled out of court. The first case that went to a jury ended with a $100 million award to the victim, said Jeffrey Herman, a lawyer who said he represents dozens of men who as boys were sexually abused by Doherty and other priests.
Herman accused the Archdiocese of Miami of ignoring early warnings about Doherty as far back as the 1970s.
The Archdiocese of Miami issued a statement Monday in response to Doherty’s plea deal, 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.
The statement also suggested that Doherty has been disciplined by the church, though he has not been defrocked.
“Over these past 10 years, Fr. Doherty has been without faculties,’’ the statement read, in part, “and he is not been permitted to dress in clerical clothes, perform any Church or public sacramental ceremonies, or represent himself as a priest.’’
Herman said Monday that he has settled at least 24 cases with the Archdiocese of Miami relating to the sexual abuse of boys by Doherty in the decades before he was permanently removed from active ministry in 2002.
“Hopefully,’’ Herman said, “Doherty’s reign of terror on South Florida is over.’’