Ex-priest Takes Plea in Child Sex Abuse Case

SunSentenial: A former Margate priest accused of molesting dozens of boys for decades faces up to 15 years in prison after he pleaded no contest to charges brought by a man who grew up in the 1990s across the street from the church.

A bearded Neil Doherty, 69, appeared haggard and frail in a beige jail jumpsuit in a Broward County courtroom Monday morning. He pleaded no contest to six counts of lewd and lascivious actions on a child.

Although Doherty faces no other criminal charges, he has been accused of molesting at least 27 children in Broward and Miami-Dade counties since as early as 1972 and has been the subject of numerous lawsuits against himself and against the Archdiocese of Miami.

Miami attorney Jeff Herman, who represents more than 20 of Doherty’s alleged victims in civil cases, said the stories of the other victims, whose allegations are too old to prosecute, persuaded the victim in the criminal case to come forward.

“Hopefully, Doherty’s reign of terror on young boys in South Florida is over,” Herman said. “He is now known as one of the most notorious priests sexually abusing boys in the United States. Doherty was reported to the Archdiocese of Miami back in the 1970s. It wasn’t until some of the victims bravely came forward that this victim [in the criminal case] felt the strength to come forward. He had said he was going to take to his grave what happened to him.”

Doherty had been charged with two counts of sexual battery on a child, four counts of lewd and lascivious acts and two counts of lewd and lascivious molestation. As part of a plea negotiation, the Broward State Attorney’s Office reduced the sexual battery charges, each of which carried a life sentence, and dropped the molestation charges.

All of the charges stemmed from Doherty’s encounters with the same victim, now 26, who lived across the street from St. Vincent’s Roman Catholic Church in Margate. The victim claimed that in the 1990s, Doherty plied him with drugs and alcohol and engaged in numerous sexual acts, some of which were outlined in court in graphic detail.

By pleading no contest, Doherty maintains his innocence while accepting the legal consequences of convictions. Each count against him carries a minimum prison term of 12 years and a maximum of 15. Under the agreement, Doherty will serve his prison terms concurrently, which means he won’t be sentenced to more than 15 years.

Broward Circuit Judge Kenneth Gillespie set sentencing for Jan. 28. Several victims are expected to attend.

Defense lawyer David Bogenschutz said the plea was in his client’s best interest. Doherty has been in the Broward Main Jail for two years.

“Physically, I think he’s been deteriorating,” Bogenschutz said. “I think that the state prison system, although it may be scary to a lot of people, certainly has a lot more things available to him to keep him healthy than the county jail does.”

Herman accused the Archdiocese of hiding allegations against Doherty for years, transferring him instead of reporting his misdeeds to police and prosecutors. Several lawsuits filed by Herman against the Archdiocese, including one on behalf of the victim in the criminal case, were settled under confidential terms.

In one case that went to a jury trial, Doherty was ordered to pay a victim $100 million. Herman said he never expects to see any of that money.

Archdiocese spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta issued a written statement Monday afternoon noting that Doherty was removed from active ministry in 2002 and barred from performing church duties or representing himself as a priest.

“The Archdiocese of Miami has been forthcoming and taken steps to keep children safe in today’s society through its policy [of] … extensive background screenings for all its employees, clergy, volunteers, and teachings,” she said. She encouraged victims of sexual abuse to come forward to law enforcement officials and to contact the Archdiocese’s hotline at 866-802-2873.

In 2010, the Archdiocese said it had settled nearly 80 lawsuits for a total of approximately $21 million. More up-to-date figures were not available Monday.