Ex-students offer conflicting views of priest
Ex-students offer conflicting views of priest – Approach made some kids vaguely uncomfortable
By JOAN D. LAGUARDIA, firstname.lastname@example.org
Published by news-press.com on October 3, 2003
A complex, contradictory picture of former Roman Catholic priest William Romero emerges as three lawsuits accuse him of sexually molesting children.
Adults who know him say he is kind and patient — an amateur photographer who illustrated three books about model warships of the 1700s. They affectionately describe him as a gregarious man, sometimes judged as being outspoken and an opinionated person whose defiance sometimes invites rumor and criticism.
A former student at St. Ann School in Naples said Romero captivated pre-teens with a fun demeanor that contrasted the stoic, disciplinarian nature of other priests.
Former students also said he made them uncomfortable in a way they couldn’t quite understand or explain.
Three Florida attorneys have sued Romero and the Archdiocese of Miami over accusations that he abused children.
One suit alleges abuse in the early 1970s at St. Augustine in Coral Gables.
A suit filed this week claims Romero abused an altar boy while he was at St. Ann in Naples in 1975 and 1976.
Another suit claims he abused two brothers and their sister in the late 1980s about the time Romero was at St. Christopher Church in Hobe Sound and St. Joseph the Worker in Moore Haven.
The Diocese of Venice began investigating Romero in May 2002 after Bishop John J. Nevins issued a general appeal for victims of abusive priests to come forward.
The diocese, which oversees 200,000 Catholics in 10 counties — including Lee, Collier and Charlotte — has never answered specific questions about the reason for or the progress of that investigation.
When asked Thursday about the status of the investigation, Gail McGrath, spokeswoman for the diocese, declined to reveal details.
However, she did point out that Romero voluntarily asked to be removed from any priestly obligations in December 2002. Catholic officials in Rome granted the request.
Does that mean the diocese dropped its investigation when Romero abandoned the priesthood?
“This diocese continues to take seriously and look into any allegations made against any representatives of the church,” McGrath said.
Though the diocese remains silent, people who knew Romero speak openly.
“He actually looked like Jerry Lewis. He had this crew cut. He always had a smile. He could speak our language,” said Kelly Ruff of Naples, who was in seventh grade at St. Ann when Romero was there as a priest and youth minister. “He wore sandals. He was completely different from what we were accustomed to.
“Maybe five or six months after he was there, there was the ongoing joke about don’t get caught in the back of the church with him,” she added. “I didn’t really know what that meant.”
Ruff, like some of her 12- and 13-year-old friends, learned about sex for the first time in Romero’s classes.
“He would lock the classroom door. He would pass out papers and then collect them before we left,” she said, adding that he warned students against telling their parents about the lessons on anatomy and reproduction and homosexuality.
“It was pretty explicit,” Ruff said. “I didn’t know what homosexuality was until then.”
He held five or six sessions before some of the students defied his demand for secrecy. They told their parents what was really happening during classes that were supposed to be about catechism — a study of the beliefs of the Catholic church.
When Romero was quickly ushered away from the parish, Ruff and her friends presumed it was because of those classes. Soon, she learned there might be more to it.
“It all came out in the little girls room. The chit-chatting began as soon as Father Romero left,” she said. “I’m extremely fortunate because I was not molested or harmed in any lasting way. I can talk freely about this.”
Romero has never been criminally charged with child abuse.
Romero steadfastly denies the accusations against him.
“I hate being judged publicly,” Romero said. “People smear my name. It’s terrible. I’m very upset and very angry.”
Ruff said the students trusted adults to deal with Romero.
“You just didn’t ask questions, but we assumed that it was handled properly when he disappeared,” she said. “We assumed he did not get transferred to another school.”
In fact, he went to four other churches after St. Ann and retired in 1995.
However, between ’91 and ’95 he had no diocesan assignment. The reason why has never been explained to The News-Press by the diocese.
Other acquaintances remember Romero as complex.
Dick Sargent, who now lives in Tallahassee, met Romero after the priest retired to LaBelle — about a mile from Sargent’s parents.
Their paths crossed at a Fort Myers photography shop, where Sargent — a photographer — helped Romero illustrate his books about model ships.
“He’s really an interesting character,” Sargent said. “He’s a strong individual as far as being blunt and outspoken, but as far as really believing he would abuse children — no, I wouldn’t believe that. I trusted him to preside at the marriage of my oldest son.”
Sargent said his first hint of rumors about Romero surfaced at a party for local photographers in LaBelle. That night, Romero told him someone at the party had accused him of having sex with boys. Romero, visibly upset and denying the accusation, refused to identify the accuser.
Before that, Sargent never felt there was anything wrong with him.
“He’s kind of a headstrong individual,” he said. “He will say just about anything that comes to mind.”
Romero said his accusers are lying in an attempt to collect a payoff from the Catholic church.
Asked if he ever had a sexual encounter with a minor, Romero said, “How many times do I have to say it? Never, never, never.”