Lambs to Slaughter

Around the age of 8, a boy we'll call Sam made a new friend. He was a man in his early 50s, the Rev. Neil Doherty, pastor at St. Vincent Catholic parish across the street from Sam's Margate home.

Sam's family was not religious, and as the boy spent more time with Doherty, it struck his parents as odd. But the boy had trouble controlling his anger, and maybe a mild-mannered priest could be a positive influence.

In 2001, when Sam's violent tendencies landed him in a juvenile court, Doherty wrote a letter on Sam's behalf. He began by listing his curriculum vitae — his master's in divinity, psychology training at Harvard and at Loyola of Chicago, as well as counseling work at Catholic Charities and part-time private practice with Fort Lauderdale psychiatrists. He also said that over his adult life he had adopted five boys aged 6 to 12 and that all had become productive citizens.

Rescuing troubled boys was Doherty's lifelong holy mission. Sam's parents, he wrote, "can rely on me trying to be a 'good neighbor.' In this particular instance, I have become a sort of 'mentor' to their son."

The rest of the letter is full of psychological jargon about personality disorders that might be the cause of Sam's mercurial behavior and about treatments Doherty could recommend. The tone is humble, deferential, and sensitive. Doherty credits Sam's "intelligence" and calls him "a unique human being." More therapy, Doherty writes, might help Sam in "discovering and accepting his true inner self." Doherty had been happy to provide that therapy, for free.

It was the year before the sex abuse scandals erupted in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. To most, priests were still trustworthy figures.

In retrospect, Sam's parents and social workers might seem naïve. You can't say the same about the Catholic Archdiocese of Miami. By the time he wrote his letter about Sam, Doherty had accumulated some 30 years' worth of abuse complaints, each of which followed the same arc: A troubled boy meets Doherty for counseling and later accuses the priest of giving him drugs and then abusing him.

Sam is allegedly one of Doherty's most recent victims. By ignoring reports that Doherty was a sexual predator, the archdiocese, victims allege, made it possible for Doherty to strike again. And again.

North Miami attorney Jeffrey Herman has filed civil suits against the archdiocese on behalf of 11 of Doherty's alleged victims. Dozens of Miami archdiocese priests have been accused of sexual abuse, but none have so many victims. And considering the many boys that Doherty has counseled over the years, Herman expects that still more will surface.

If you were a parent and "your kid was having drug or behavior problems and you called the archdiocese," Herman says, "they sent your kid to Neil Doherty — which was the worst place he could go."

A native of coastal Massachusetts, Doherty moved with his family to Lake Worth in the late 1950s. After graduating high school, he enrolled in the St. John Vianney Seminary in Miami. At six foot three, Doherty made a towering figure at the altar. He seemed even taller in the vestments of a Catholic priest, with all the authority they conferred.

Before Doherty became a priest, his superiors questioned whether he had the qualities necessary to lead a parish. In June 1968, as Doherty neared his subdioconate — the order necessary to become a priest — records show that seminary officials learned of strains between Doherty and his family. They sent him to psychological counseling for his own sake and for the sake of the church. They wanted to be sure he was fit for the priesthood.

Rev. Rene H. Gracida (who would later become the chancellor of the archdiocese), was assigned to evaluate Doherty. He ruled that Doherty was "unsatisfactory." Had the archdiocese followed its own standards, Doherty would have been turned away from the priesthood then. But for reasons unclear from archdiocese records, Doherty remained on his pastoral track.

In February 1969, as Doherty approached his ordination, Gracida authored a memo that contained a grudging endorsement. "I consider Mr. Doherty a very intelligent and complex individual," he wrote. "I cannot ascribe logical reasons for my doubts concerning his fitness for ordination." Gracida cited Doherty's "late hours and heavy drinking," but he wrote that he was most worried about the young seminarian's "obsessive preoccupation with psychology." That, Gracida mused, may have been Doherty's true calling. Though he supported ordination for Doherty, Gracida attached a caveat: "I merely wish to express serious doubts as to his fitness and as to his probable chances for achieving stability and happiness in the priesthood." A few months later, in May 1969, Doherty was ordained.

Soon he'd give his church more reason for doubt. In 1971, police raided a halfway house for troubled youth in Palm Beach County, based on allegations of widespread drug use there. Doherty had a supervising role at the halfway house; he had reported nothing about drug use. But a priest who'd been assigned to share a home with Doherty in Riviera Beach, Rev. Martin Cassidy, contacted higher-ups to advise that Doherty should be kept away from drug rehabilitation facilities.

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Thomas Francis