Lambs to Slaughter

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

Chris, who formed a drug habit before he became a teenager, bounced between Boys Town in west Miami and juvenile halls. Doherty always seemed to turn up. Chris thought it was cool that this priest had posters of rock bands on his walls. And, he told a detective, "He was teaching me to drive a car — you know, the things that a boy would want a father figure to do." In his early teens, he visited Doherty at a home in Coconut Grove, he said, and the priest gave him marijuana.

At age 15 or 16, Chris escaped from a reform school and Doherty offered him a place to stay. After a night of drinking and smoking pot, Chris passed out. When he woke in the middle of the night, Doherty was molesting him. "I just laid there frozen," he told police. "This person I had trusted with my entire life ... violated me, and there is nothing I could do about it."

After Doherty finished, Chris lay awake, listening. "I waited until he went to bed. I got up and I left, and I never saw him again." In 1979, Chris was sent to prison for seven years for crimes not disclosed in the public file.

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

Neither Chris nor Andy told anyone about the abuse, they said — not their parents, not even their friends. "It's not a very cool thing to talk about," says Andy, who recently agreed to be interviewed by phone. "When you're a young person, you want to be accepted, to not have people look at you like you're a weirdo."

In 1979, there came another abuse report: a boy who said Doherty drugged and molested a 16-year-old friend. At a deposition last year, Herman, the victims' attorney, handed Monsignor Rev. Tomas M. Marin, the chancellor of the archdiocese, a copy of the April 1979 memo that contained the accusation. He asked Marin what the proper response to that report should have been. Marin answered, "Investigate the allegations and see if they were true or not."

Herman pounced, reminding Marin that the report ought to have been given to the police, not investigated internally by the church. Marin disagreed, saying "there [was] no policy in 1979 that we had to report it."

But there was a law: Florida Statute 415.504, which requires persons with knowledge or suspicions of child abuse to report them to the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services. "What if I told you there was a law that said you had to report it," Herman said. "Would that change your opinion?"

"It would possibly change my opinion," Marin said.

The report of the 16-year-old, plus another allegation that Doherty molested a six-year-old, prompted an investigation by the archdiocese. Ultimately Marin's own review of archdiocese records found no interviews of victims or Doherty — only a consultation with a psychiatrist and a background check to ascertain whether Doherty had ever been arrested in Broward County (he had not). The investigation was closed.

If you've been abused by a priest in South Florida, Jeffrey Herman is the guy you call. Herman grew up in a Jewish family in the eastern suburbs of Cleveland. In his forties, he has a weightlifter's shoulders and an eager, energetic demeanor. On days he's not in court, he ditches the suit for jeans and vintage T-shirts.

So far, Herman has settled five cases involving Rev. Neil Doherty and has six more that are pending. He has also sued the archdiocese based on reports of abuse by 15 other priests.

The Catholic Church has become a jackpot for Herman, who reasons it's the church's own fault. "From my perspective, secrecy is a hallmark of the church," he says. "You have this imbalance of power where priests are the parish's connection to God. They have a mandate to keep secrets, to protect the church from scandal. And that was their priority — not protecting children."

In recent years, Herman has learned how sexual abuse causes victims to feel shame and to feel as if they are controlled by forces stronger than themselves. Since the criminal courts' statute of limitations has lapsed for alleged victims of abuse in the Seventies and Eighties, the civil courts are the only venue to seek justice. "By coming forward and filing a civil lawsuit, they're taking power back in their lives," says Herman. "Victims have told me this is part of the healing process. By holding the church accountable, they realize, 'This is not my fault.'"

A central issue in the Doherty cases and in those of other priests is the standard by which the Catholic Church has traditionally judged priests' guilt, called "moral certainty." It's similar to a criminal jury's instruction to convict only when evidence suggests guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Handled internally by the church, abuse complaints boil down to a priest's word against a child's. In Doherty's case, those children were almost always from checkered backgrounds. That appears to have made it difficult for the church to establish Doherty's guilt.

Herman argues that even if the individual boys who claimed Doherty abused them lacked credibility, the sheer volume of reports, combined with their similarity — drugged and then raped — established a pattern. "If you're not going to remove a priest until you have moral certainty, you're going to expose kids to a grave risk," says Herman. "In my opinion, the only thing certain about Doherty is that he was going to abuse more kids."

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