Lambs to Slaughter

Miami's Catholic leaders covered for a priest who drugged and sodomized at least a dozen boys.

Around the age of eight, a boy we'll call Sam made a new friend — a man in his early fifties. Rev. Neil Doherty was pastor at St. Vincent Catholic Church, which was across the street from Sam's Margate home.

Sam's family was not religious, and as the boy spent more time with Doherty, it struck his parents as odd. But Sam had trouble controlling his anger, and maybe a mild-mannered priest could be a positive influence.

In 2001, when Sam's violent tendencies landed him in juvenile court, Doherty wrote a letter on his behalf. The priest began by listing his master's degree in divinity as well as psychology training at Harvard and Loyola of Chicago, and continued by describing his counseling work at Catholic Charities and part-time private practice with Fort Lauderdale psychiatrists.

Neil Doherty's crimes were buried for years.
Neil Doherty's crimes were buried for years.

Rescuing troubled boys was Doherty's lifelong mission. Sam's parents, he wrote, "can rely on me trying to be a 'good neighbor.' In this particular instance, I have become a sort of 'mentor' to their son."

He filled the rest of the letter with psychological jargon about personality disorders that might be the cause of Sam's mercurial behavior, and possible treatments. The tone was humble, deferential, and sensitive. Doherty credited Sam's "intelligence" and called him "a unique human being." More therapy, Doherty wrote, might help Sam in "discovering and accepting his true inner self." Doherty said he had been happy to provide that therapy, for free.

It was the year before the sex abuse scandals erupted in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. To most people, priests were still trustworthy figures. In retrospect, Sam's parents and social workers might seem naive. You can't say the same about the Catholic Archdiocese of Miami. By the time he wrote the letter, Doherty had accumulated 30 years' worth of abuse complaints, each of which followed the same arc: A troubled boy meets the priest for counseling and later accuses him of abuse and providing drugs.

Sam is allegedly one of Doherty's most recent victims. By overlooking reports that the priest was a sexual predator, the archdiocese, it is claimed, made it possible for him to strike again. And again.

North Miami attorney Jeffrey Herman has sued the archdiocese on behalf of 11 of Doherty's alleged victims. That number is far higher than for any other priest in the archdiocese. And considering the many boys Doherty has counseled over the years, Herman expects more claims to surface.

"[If] your kid was having drug or behavior problems and you called the archdiocese," Herman says, "they sent your kid to Neil Doherty — which was the worst place he could go."

A native of coastal Massachusetts, Doherty moved with his family to Lake Worth in the late Fifties. After graduating from high school, he enrolled in St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami. Standing six feet three inches tall, he made a towering figure at the altar. He seemed even taller in his vestments because of the authority they conferred.

Before Doherty became a priest, his superiors questioned whether he had the necessary qualities. In June 1968, as Doherty neared his subdioconate — the order necessary to become a priest — records show that seminary officials learned of strains between Doherty and his family. They sent him to psychological counseling.

The priest assigned to evaluate Doherty, Rev. Rene H. Gracida, ruled that Doherty was "unsatisfactory." Had the archdiocese followed its own standards, Doherty would have been turned away from the priesthood then. But for reasons that are unclear in archdiocese records, he remained on the pastoral track.

In February 1969, as Doherty approached his ordination, Gracida authored a memo that contained a grudging endorsement. "I consider Mr. Doherty a very intelligent and complex individual," he wrote. "I cannot ascribe logical reasons for my doubts concerning his fitness for ordination." Gracida cited Doherty's "late hours and heavy drinking," but he wrote that he was most worried about the young seminarian's "obsessive preoccupation with psychology." That, Gracida mused, might have been Doherty's true calling. Though he supported ordination for Doherty, Gracida attached a caveat: "I merely wish to express serious doubts as to his fitness and as to his probable chances for achieving stability and happiness in the priesthood." A few months later, in May 1969, Doherty was ordained.

In short time, there were more reasons for doubt. In 1971, police raided a halfway house for troubled youth in Palm Beach County, based on allegations of widespread drug use. Doherty had a supervisory role there. A priest who'd been assigned to share a home with Doherty in Riviera Beach, Rev. Martin Cassidy, had contacted higherups to advise that Doherty should be kept away from drug rehabilitation facilities.

In April 1972, Cassidy made another report, informing Archbishop Coleman F. Carroll that Doherty, then 29 years old, had legally adopted a "young adolescent" named Gary Davis, who slept in Doherty's bedroom. Judging by church records produced in civil suits, Carroll, who had held his title since the archdiocese formed in 1958, did not order an investigation or take disciplinary measures. Shortly after Cassidy reported his concerns, however, Doherty received a new assignment, at Saint Anthony Catholic Church in Fort Lauderdale.

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