Florida priest continued in active ministry for three years after sex abuse lawsuit filed — By: Catholic News Agency

Father Leo Riley, age 68, continued to serve as a priest for years after a 2020 sexual abuse lawsuit was filed against him and the Diocese of Venice in Florida. / Credit: Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office

CNA Staff, Apr 27, 2024 / 19:18 pm (CNA).

A Florida priest who was recently arrested on sex abuse charges was permitted to continue in active ministry for nearly three years after a civil sex abuse lawsuit was filed against him and the diocese in which he serves.

Father Leo Riley, age 68, continued to serve as a priest for years after a 2020 sexual abuse lawsuit was filed against him and the Diocese of Venice in Florida. 

The matter came to the forefront this week after Riley was arrested on several sex abuse charges dating back to his time serving as a priest in Iowa decades ago. 

The Charlotte County, Florida Sheriff’s Office said in a press release that deputies arrested Riley in Port Charlotte on April 24 “on multiple counts of capital sexual battery stemming from his past work as a priest in Iowa.” He was ordained in Iowa in 1982 and served there until 2005.

The civil lawsuit in Florida was filed in July 2020 with the 12th Judicial Circuit Court. It named Riley, the Diocese of Venice, and St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Port Charlotte as defendants, along with Alan Klispie, a music teacher at the parish school. The suit alleges that both Klispie and Riley committed various forms of abuse against the plaintiff for years.

Venice Bishop Frank Dewane told members of the San Antonio Parish in Port Charlotte on Saturday — where Riley was previously pastor — that there is “a pending civil lawsuit of 2020 against Father Riley here in Florida which upon its receipt was reported to the State Attorney of Charlotte County.” 

“At the time the civil lawsuit was received, the factual allegations therein were inaccurate and contradictory,” Dewane wrote. 

“The plaintiff has since changed his allegations and the litigation is still pending,” the bishop wrote in the letter.

The diocese said the letter was also being distributed “at all parishes where Father Riley has been previously assigned in the Diocese of Venice.” 

The bishop in the letter urged “anyone who believes that he or she has been the victim of sexual misconduct by someone serving in ministry for the Diocese of Venice” to contact law enforcement as well as the diocese itself. 

Asked if Riley was placed on leave following the 2020 suit, diocesan spokeswoman Karen Schwarz told CNA on Saturday: “Regarding the civil lawsuit of 2020, it is my understanding that Father Riley was not placed on administrative leave at that time, due to the facts of the allegations being inaccurate and contradictory.”

The diocese’s website shows Riley still in active ministry, working as pastor at San Antonio Catholic Church, at least as late as 2022, two years after the suit was filed. The parish is home to St. Charles Borromeo school, a pre-K through 8th grade Catholic school.

Damian Mallard, a Florida attorney who is representing the plaintiff in the 2020 lawsuit, told CNA on Friday that the diocese was aware of the suit when it was filed. “We served them with the lawsuit back then,” he said. 

Asked if there had been any communication from the diocese at the time of the filing, Mallard said: “Diocesan lawyers responded to my lawsuit. But there was nothing concerning taking Riley out of his job.” 

Mallard confirmed that the suit is still pending. “Riley won’t sit for a deposition because his lawyers demand that I tell them every victim that I’ve found,” he said, “and I said no.” 

Several courts have ruled in Mallard’s favor on the matter of detailing the identities of the alleged victims, he told CNA. 

The lawsuit is seeking “damages for my client for what he’s been through,” Mallard told CNA. 

“His life has been destroyed,” the lawyer said. The amount of the damages is “up to a jury to decide,” he added.

Priest arrested this week on sex abuse charges

Bishop Dewane wrote the letter this week partly in response to Riley’s arrest by Florida law enforcement earlier in the week. 

In their press release, the Charlotte County sheriff’s office said Florida law enforcement officers had worked with the Dubuque, Iowa Police Department in making the arrest. The Dubuque police “had developed probable cause for five counts of capital sexual battery within their jurisdiction,” the sheriff’s office said. 

Riley, who previously served in the Archdiocese of Dubuque, has been on administrative leave in the Venice diocese since May of 2023 when several abuse allegations from his time in the Iowa archdiocese were made against him. 

Riley’s arrest this week comes after at least a decade of abuse allegations made against the priest.

In a letter released on Friday, Dubuque Archbishop Thomas Zinkula said the “first notice of any allegation of abuse by Father Riley was made in December of 2014.” 

“The claim related to the time-period of 1985, when Father Riley would have been in Dubuque,” the archbishop wrote. “Particulars of the allegation were received in February of 2015.”

The archbishop noted that Riley was incardinated into the Diocese of Venice by this time, having been granted that request in 2005 to be near his parents. 

The Dubuque archdiocese “notified the Diocese of Venice, Florida, and Father Riley was placed on administrative leave pending the results of the investigation,” the archbishop said.

“The investigation concluded that the best information available at the time did not support a reasonable belief that the allegation was true,” Zinkula wrote. Law enforcement, meanwhile, “chose not to conduct an investigation into the allegation because the applicable statute of limitations at that time had expired.”

Two new allegations were subsequently made against Riley in May of last year, both of them once again stemming from alleged misconduct in Dubuque in the mid-1980s. Upon receiving the allegations, the archdiocese “began an internal investigation into the new allegations, which remains open pending the outcome of the criminal charges.”

It is unclear whether these two allegations against Riley formed the basis of this week’s arrest. The Dubuque police department was unable to provide a copy of the warrant on Friday as it was still listed as active in that jurisdiction. 

On Thursday, meanwhile, the Venice diocese said in a statement that when the latest allegations were made public last year, DeWane “immediately placed Father Riley on administrative leave, pending the investigation that was to be conducted by the Archdiocese of Dubuque.”

Diocesan spokeswoman Karen Schwarz confirmed to CNA on Friday that Riley “was put on administrative leave in May of 2023 and has not been involved in ministry since then.”

Charlotte County Sheriff Bill Prummell said in announcing Riley’s arrest that “if the accusations are true, then we have had a sexual predator living among us in Charlotte County that was trusted by far too many people simply because of his position.” 

“It is likely that there are more victims, and I encourage them to come forward so that we can make sure this type of heinous thing does not happen to anyone else here,” the sheriff said.

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