Father Figure

Allegations force a church, a priest and his former students to re-examine the past.

Leonard, 63, has been a priest for 37 years. Even with that much experience, those close to him say he can be, at times, na‹ve about what’s OK to say in public — like the time the priest repeated to the congregation a joke a lay minister had told him about the movie “Debbie Does Dallas.” Leonard didn’t mean to offend anyone, says a parishioner who’s close to him. He didn’t even know it was a pornographic film.

“Out of context, how would that sound?” says the parishioner, then answers himself: “That would sound horrible.”

Context, in big things and in little, often is the key. And now that Leonard has stepped down until the diocese completes an investigation into his past, context is particularly important.

In the midst of a nationwide panic over sexual abuse by priests, Leonard has been accused of engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior with two students while serving as the principal of St. John Vianney Seminary in the 1970s.

Leonard vehemently denies the incident ever happened. It’s important to note that this recent allegation is not a report of sexual abuse, says diocesan spokesman the Rev. Pasquale Apuzzo, nor was it a call for action against Leonard: “[The accuser] was just talking about inappropriate behavior, thought we should know about it.”

The allegation was not triggered by e-mails sent by a Style reporter to former St. John Vianney students, Apuzzo says, contrary to an article published last week in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Sometime in the last week of April, Apuzzo says, a Hampton Roads man came to Monsignor Thomas J. Caroluzza, the diocese’s vicar in the area, with an account of Leonard behaving inappropriately when the man was a student at St. John Vianney. (Style’s e-mail inquiry was cited in a second, anonymous allegation the diocese received via e-mail several days after the first.)

Details of the accusation or accusations are being kept quiet by the diocese while the matter is investigated.

But a former student who knows the first accuser describes the two alleged incidents as occurring 31 years ago and involving Leonard and two students in a bedroom — not at the school, the source says; he won’t say where. “Just looking,” says the source. “No touching at all. Nobody touched anybody.”

It’s difficult to know what to make of the alleged events, this person says. “It doesn’t appear predatory. It appears stupid. It appears inappropriate. It also appears incredibly na‹ve.”

What is innocent? What is inappropriate? These are the questions with which many former students of Leonard’s are struggling. And now many St. John alumni are scrutinizing the past, trying to reconcile high-school memories with a charge that has shaken the diocese.

More than a month before the allegations were made public on May 4, Style received an anonymous call from someone who suggested that there had been sexual misconduct at St. John Vianney Seminary, a high school in Goochland that closed in 1978.

A Style reporter sent e-mails to alumni of St. John Vianney from the classes of 1969 to 1974, asking for information about the anonymous caller’s claims. Five alumni responded via e-mail. Two stated firmly that nothing inappropriate had ever occurred at the school; two said they knew of no incidents of sexual contact between priests and students; and one described feeling uncomfortable in a counseling session with Leonard.

A Style reporter followed up on two e-mails with phone calls to the alumni. After the allegations against Leonard were made public by the diocese, Style received two more anonymous calls from men who said they were alumni, alleging further incidents at the school.

The alumni described their years at St. John Vianney. They tried to explain what it was like to live in a small, isolated community of young men and the priests who taught them.

Built in 1960, St. John Vianney closed in 1978, when the number of young men considering the priesthood was dwindling. The campus on River Road in Goochland County has since become the Mary, Mother of the Church Abbey, but the boxy, pale brick buildings with rectangular metal windows and heavy doors will always speak “school.” Monks’ footsteps sound on the floors where boys used to tramp back and forth, from chapel to class to dormitories. The Italian nuns who used to clean and cook for the school returned long ago to their native land.

St. John Vianney was founded as a preparatory high school for young men from all over the state who were considering joining the priesthood. Students lived there, wore blazer uniforms, prayed often, played sports and produced plays.

Students who entered St. John Vianney as freshmen could be extraordinarily na‹ve by today’s standards. One alumnus who attended in the early ’70s remembers confessing to a priest that other students were teasing him about masturbation — when he didn’t even know how to do it. It was a time when no one said the word “gay,” and when sex education could be a murky issue.

The priests who taught the students also lived at the school in rooms adjoining the dormitories. The young men and their mentors shared prayer, confession and conversation.

“You got to be close. You became close,” says a student, who praises how the priests guided the young men. “We’d hang out.”

Each student chose a priest to be his spiritual adviser, to counsel him in his religious studies and serve as his confessor.

Leonard began teaching at St. John Vianney in 1968 after beginning his career in the diocese as associate pastor in St. Paul’s Parish from 1965 to 1968, Apuzzo says. In 1974, Leonard became rector of the school, and served in that capacity until it closed.

Leonard was a particularly popular priest, many alumni say, with a following in each grade. “He seemed to always have somebody sitting outside his door waiting to see him,” recalls one former student who also had Leonard as his adviser. (He emphasizes that to his knowledge Leonard never behaved inappropriately.)

True, some activities in which students and priests took part would seem inappropriate today. There was drinking at informal gatherings, says one former student. “I remember John Leonard making us drinks.” This, of course, was when 18 was the legal drinking age, and it didn’t happen often, he says. “We weren’t drinkers.” The cocktail of choice, says another, was the gimlet — gin and lime juice.

And sometimes students went skinny-dipping in the pool that sat behind the big house on the hill. “It was boyish stuff,” one student says. “It was Mark Twain stuff. We’d peel and hit the pool and that’d be it.”

Another alumnus remembers an organized skinny-dipping club, led by a priest, “that would sneak out after lights out. How na‹ve we were back then!” he writes in an e-mail to Style. But another man says, “When the priests were there, no one dared skinny-dip.”

Other alumni say they’re appalled by suggestions that anything untoward ever occurred. “Never did I see or hear of any inappropriate behavior on [Leonard’s] part or on the part of any of the priests there,” writes one man who attended the school from 1968 to 1971.

The fact that former students making charges of inappropriate sexual behavior have remained anonymous “should be enough of a clue to you that someone is trying to stir trouble that is unfounded,” writes another.

During an evening mass on Saturday, May 4, Leonard told his congregation that he was being placed on administrative leave so the matter could be investigated. In 1996 the priest had been investigated — and fully cleared — of sexual misconduct claims, says Apuzzo, the diocese’s spokesman.

“The last I know that we ever had an allegation that we followed up on like this was the Father John Hesch case,” Apuzzo says.

(Hesch was a priest who shot himself in 1994, shortly after Bishop Walter F. Sullivan confronted Hesch about allegations that he’d abused young boys and told him to get treatment. The meeting followed a family’s claim that Hesch’s molestation of their son in the mid-1980s had contributed to the 21-year-old’s suicide in April 1994.)

After St. John Vianney closed, Leonard worked from 1978 to 1979 to establish a parish in Lynchburg, St. Thomas More, and was then assigned to start another parish, Church of the Epiphany, in 1979. He stayed there until 1987, then became principal at Norfolk Catholic High School until it closed to reopen in Virginia Beach in 1992. In that year, he founded his third parish, St. Michael’s in Glen Allen.

This month’s announcement that Leonard was being investigated hit Leonard — and St. Michael’s — hard. A prayer service on Thursday, May 9, drew more than 800 supporters. Longtime parishioner Margaret Heinrich, who has been a member of St. Michael’s since it was formed, says everyone was shocked to hear that such a well-loved leader had been accused of any misconduct.

After the May 4 evening Mass, “half the parish was crying in sympathy for him,” Heinrich says. She approached Leonard to give him a hug, as did many others. “I said, ‘I’m sorry, Father.’ He had tears in his eyes.”

An assessment team, made up of mental-health professional Theresa May and Caroluzza, will be talking to Leonard as well as investigating any communications the diocese receives on the matter, Apuzzo says. The team will not, however, seek to find and interview alumni of St. John Vianney or former faculty, he says.

The team will then deliver a report to a panel, which recommends action to the bishop. The goal is to make the investigation thorough but timely — 10 to 15 days for the initial report, he says, and not more than 60 to complete the investigation.

Meanwhile, Leonard waits at home. A parishioner close to the priest describes him as “numb” after the allegations.

“Although the people at St. Michael’s are showering him with prayers and gifts,” this parishioner says, “he feels alone.” S


WHAT YOU WANT TO KNOW — straight to your inbox

* indicates required
Our mailing lists: