It's not just disgraced Latin American dictators who come to South Florida to bury their dirty pasts. Apparently, men of the cloth do as well.
Walter Philip Coleman, a retired priest now living in Pompano Beach, has been hit with a lawsuit for allegedly molesting an altar boy in Connecticut in the 1970s. Lawyers for the plaintiff say they are concerned there might be more victims in the Miami area, where Coleman conducted mass in 1996.
"I don't think the Archdiocese of Miami was told about Coleman's background or the complaints against him," says attorney Jason Tremont. "That's the scary thing."
Mary Ross Agosta, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Miami, says Coleman was never employed here in Florida but volunteered in Broward County after retiring in 1996. Tht was about the time allegations of abuse arose in Connecticut.
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Agosta does not know where, exactly, Coleman volunteered. She says her office has not received any complaints about Coleman, nor did it know of the allegations against him when it approved him to volunteer.
According to the lawsuit, filed yesterday, Coleman began sexually abusing altar boy Eric Sauers in 1972/ The abuse continued often in the priest's car. Coleman was then working at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Fairfield, Connecticut:
During the early 1970's. the defendant Coleman sexually assaulted, sexually battered, and sexually exploited the plaintiff, Eric Sauers thereby causing him injury and damage.
As a result thereof. the plaintiff suffered injuries of a serious and permanent nature in that he suffered physical injuries resultant from the sexual abuse and assault and severe emotional injuries including emotional distress, anxiety. frustration. disassociation, post-traumatic stress and permanent psychological scarring which were exacerbated and intensified by lack of timely treatment.
Tremont says his office has represented five other plaintiffs who claim Coleman sexually abused them as well. Many have received settlements. His office has filed 80 lawsuits against the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, an organization Tremont claims has a record of hiding abuse.
"This same diocese kept a secret archive of complaints, destroying records so that priests could get a false second start somewhere else," he said. That secrecy may have kept the Archdiocese of Miami from preventing Coleman from later volunteering in Broward County.
Whether or not the Archdiocese of Miami knew of Coleman's record when the priest moved to Florida, current Archbishop Thomas Wenski has a responsibility to make sure the priest didn't do any more damage after he arrived, says Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
"Bishop Wenski should act like a caring shepherd, not a cold-hearted CEO, and personally visit each parish where Coleman worked, begging anyone with information or suspicions of his crimes to call police," Blaine says. "That's what will truly help protect the vulnerable and heal the wounded."