Six of the more than 300 priests that a Pennsylvania grand jury said sexually abused more than 1,000 children had ties to the Diocese of Venice, according to the Florida diocese. They include a priest who fathered a child with an underage girl, before working for six years at a parish in Palmetto.
The revelations came last week, following the release of a grand jury report that concluded that more than 1,000 children, mostly boys, had been abused by priests in six Pennsylvania dioceses and that there was a systematic cover-up by church officials in efforts to avoid bad publicity and financial liability.
One of the priests with local ties, Rev. Robert Brague, was the assistant pastor at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Palmetto from 1991 to 1997. He had moved to Florida after impregnating a teenage girl in Pennsylvania, according to the grand jury report.
Bishop Frank J. Dewane, the leader of the Diocese of Venice, which encompasses Manatee, Sarasota and eight other counties, issued a letter to local Catholics in response to the grand jury report. He said he found the report "utterly appalling and deeply disturbing."
"No words can adequately express my contrition for the horrible sins committed," Dewane stated in the third paragraph of his letter. "I wish to offer victims and their families my sincere apology for what was done to them by ministers of the Church. It is my commitment to do personal penance in reparation for these grave sins and to encourage the clergy and faithful of the Diocese to join with me in this penance."
In an attached statement to Dewane’s letter, the diocese named Brague and five other priests that had ties to the Diocese of Venice. Besides Brague, who is deceased, they are:
• Rev. Father Thomas M. O’Donnell
• Rev. Father Sean Kerins
• Rev. Father Robert E. Spangenberg
• Rev. Father Raymond R. Rhoden
• Rev. Father Timothy Sperber
The diocese asked that the statement be read at Sunday Masses, and also posted it on its website and Facebook page.
"The Diocese of Venice and its entities take very seriously the safety of all young people and vulnerable adults," that statement read. "To this end, the Diocese works to prevent any instances of abuse, particularly against minors and vulnerable adults with a zero-tolerance policy."
Of the six, the priest with the most prominent local ties was Brague, who served as the Parochial Vicar of Holy Cross Catholic Church in Palmetto from 1991-97.
"The Diocese is not aware, nor was it ever informed, of any abuse allegations in the Diocese of Venice pertaining to Father Brague," the statement from the diocese read.
But the diocese had reason to be suspicious of Brague, according to the grand jury report.
His transfer came after then-Bishop James C. Timlin of the Diocese of Scranton wrote a letter in August 1989 to then-Bishop John Nevins, of the Diocese of Venice, recommending Brague, according to the grand jury report.
Timlin told Nevins that Brague could no longer exercise his priestly faculties in the Diocese of Scanton because of circumstances that had been discussed with another priest in their diocese.
On Monday, the Diocese of Venice told the Bradenton Herald, it did not have a copy of the letter in its file. Nevins died in 2014.
Brague, who died in 1997, first became troubled early in his time as priest. He was ordained in 1970 and after serving as an assistant pastor in three different parishes, Brague took a leave of absence in August 1979, claiming "he had doubts about continuing in the active ministry for several years," the grand jury report states.
He returned to work in June 1980, and was shuffled between four more parishes before taking another leave of absence.
Brague’s second leave of absence came just three days after a woman in August 1988 wrote Bishop Timlin to report that Brague had a sexual relationship with her 17-year-old sister and that the girl was pregnant. The woman added that it was one of at least three sexual affairs the priest was having, according to the grand jury.
On Sept. 1, 1988, Brague was placed on leave, and five days later the bishop wrote back to the girl’s sister.
"Father Brague and your sister have a long, difficult road ahead. ... What has happened is their responsibility and certainly Father Brague will take care of his obligations," Timlin wrote, according to the grand jury report.
The Diocese of Venice was not the first choice for where to move Brague.
In December 1988, Rev. Father Neil Van Loon, chancellor for the Diocese of Scranton, wrote a letter to Monsignor Henry Mansell, of the Archdiocese of New York, and thanked him for helping find Brague an assignment, according to the grand jury report. But days later, Van Loon received a letter back informing him that Brague’s approval had not been finalized.
In April 1989, the victim gave birth to a son. Brague remained on leave.
When Brague was ultimately transferred to Diocese of Venice , he first assigned to St. Ann Catholic Church in Naples in January 1990 as parochial vicar.
Not long after the victim’s son turned six years old, she wrote to the diocese and asked that her son’s tuition be paid or waived in order for him to attend St. Agnes School in Towanda. Pa. Days later the diocese responded her son would be admitted to the already overcrowded school and a scholarship would be arranged for him .
The Venice diocese’s statement last week went on to say that sexual abuse of children by anyone especially clergy and the hierarchy of the church was unacceptable, and added the "perpetrators of these inhumane crime" would be held responsible.
Palmetto police said they never investigated Brague for possible wrongdoing while he was assigned to Holy Cross.
Other priests with local ties
Rev. Father Thomas O’Donnell never held any priestly faculties locally, according to the Diocese of Venice. He lives in Fort Myers at the St. John XXIII HUD project.
O’Donnell, retired from the Diocese of Pittsburgh in 2004, was shuffled around 11 churches, including his final assignment at the Epiphany Catholic Church in Pittsburgh.
Rev. Father Sean Kerins, of the Diocese of Erie, has never been associated with the Diocese of Venice, according to local officials. Kerins currently lives in Naples, according to the grand jury report. Kerins is listed among cases still being investigated by law enforcement even though alleged abuse occurred decades ago and there are no living witnesses or collaborating evidence.
Rev. Father Robert E. Spangenberg, of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, first came to work locally from 1989 to 1990 as the director of the Stella Maris Retirement Community of the Congregation of the Holy Ghost in Sarasota. According to the Diocese of Venice, the religious community ran independently from the diocese, but Spangenberg had been granted facilities at the time.
Diocese documents revealed that Spangenberg had already abused at least two children at the time he first came to Florida, according to the grand jury report.
He died in 2006.
According to the Diocese of Venice, they have no records of Rev. Fathers Raymond R. Rhoden and Timothy Sperber, but listed both as having ties based on the grand jury report.
Rhoden died 2006.
The Bradenton Herald could find no connection between Sperber and the Diocese of Venice in the grand jury report. He was transferred to the Diocese of Miami, however, in 1992. He was assigned to St. Gregory in Plantation and later to St. Boniface in Pembroke Pines. According to the grand jury report, he took a leave of absence in 1998 and was then suspended in 2000 after failing to appear for an assignment.
"If a priest is retired, or moves to the area of the Diocese and does not request to exercise their priestly ministry, the Diocese is not always informed and has no way of confirming or knowing an individual is within its boundaries," the Diocese of Venice said in its statement.