FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - A retired Roman Catholic priest accused of sexually abusing dozens of boys for decades pleaded no contest under a plea agreement in a Fort Lauderdale courtroom Monday.
A graying Father Neil Doherty appeared frail as he entered a plea reducing sex abuse charges from a capital felony to a second-degree felony, which could require him to serve up to 15 years in prison and register as a sex offender.
The plea comes after several other alleged victims came forward and were planning to testify in the case.
"It just came time for the case to be concluded," Doherty's attorney David Bogenschutz said. "My client has been in jail, he's been very, very sick. We've had issues with psychological problems, but they haven't been so severe to cause him to be incompetent."
Parents of some of the victims were upset when they spoke with Local 10 Monday.
"How could they not notify us that there was a hearing today and they were going to accept a plea deal," said the mother of one of the men, known as Victim 22. "It's not even an admission of guilt."
Attorneys for the victims said Doherty befriended troubled young boys for years, plied them with drugs and alcohol and paid them to run errands and do odd jobs. But the relationships often turned to sexual acts.
The victim in this case was about 10 years old when he said he first walked over to the church from his home, passed out after drinking a drug laced-soda and awoke with sodomy wounds. The scenario repeatedly occurred over a five-year period in the late 1990s, attorney Jeff Herman said.
"My opinion is that any day Father Doherty is not in jail, kids are not safe in Florida. He is a notorious, serial, sexual predator who has sexually abused dozens and dozens of boys over the years," said Herman.
The victim, who is now in his early 20s, planned to take his secret to the grave, but was emboldened after several other victims came forward in lawsuits against Doherty. The victim was living in an institution when Herman met him, but is now married with a child.
Attorneys allege the Archdiocese of Miami turned a blind eye to Doherty's behavior and moved him to another church each time a new allegation surfaced.
"We have files going back to the 1970s showing that the Archdiocese of Miami knew that Doherty was sexually abusing boys for decades but did nothing about it," Herman said.
At one point, another priest complained to the archbishop that Doherty had a boy living with him in the rectory, but it was swept under the rug, Herman said.
The Archdiocese of Miami did not immediately return an email seeking comment Monday.
All of us - victims, families, the parish - we have to move on," said Father Joe Prazo, who succeeded Doherty at St. Vincent Church in Margate.
Doherty, 69, maintains his innocence. Bogenschutz said he disputed the facts of the state's case but declined to elaborate.
In 2011, a Miami jury returned a $100 million verdict in a civil suit against Doherty in a different sex abuse case, although the amount is unlikely to ever be collected.
Herman said the verdict was among the largest nationwide against an individual priest. The Archdiocese of Miami was not named in that lawsuit, but has been targeted by more than 20 other lawsuits over allegations of sexual abuse by Doherty. Many have been settled.
A civil settlement in Monday's case was settled a few years ago for an undisclosed amount.
A victim's rights group also criticized the archdiocese in a statement Monday for not stopping Doherty sooner.
"So while an egregious child molesting cleric will be deemed guilty today, dozens of his complicit Catholic colleagues will continue to escape responsibility for their recklessness, callousness and deception," said Barbara Blaine of Chicago, president of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
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