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December 28, 2002

St. Augustine Catholic priest is suspended

From: St. Augustine Record, FL - 28 Dec 2002

Senior Writer

A St. Johns County Circuit Court judge on Friday issued an injunction for protection against a St. Augustine Catholic priest accused by a co-worker of sexually harassing her.

This was a permanent injunction to replace a temporary injunction issued Dec. 20.

According to court documents, the Rev. Father Rene Robert, 58, of San Sebastian Catholic Church, State Road 16, who also serves as minister to the Catholic students at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, is accused by the 38-year-old woman of making unwanted sexual advances between September and earlier this month. She said she has known Robert for eight years but only started working at the church in August.

Robert has not been charged with committing a crime and violence was not alleged by the complainant. However, the State Attorney's Office will review the woman's testimony, and that of witnesses, and determine if any charges should be filed. The woman filed her complaint last week with the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office.

Meanwhile, Robert is under suspension from his duties pending the outcome of the investigation. Kathleen Bagg-Morgan, spokeswoman for the Diocese of St. Augustine, told The St. Augustine Record on Friday: "The bishop (Victor Galeone) has placed him on suspension and he is not allowed to carry out any of his priestly duties and other assignments for the time being."

Bagg-Morgan said officials of the Diocese of St. Augustine learned of the allegations last week. "We are cooperating with local authorities," she said.

The suspension, she said, is in keeping with the diocesan policy and guidelines relating to allegations of sexual abuse made against church personnel. That policy requires the diocese to respond promptly to allegations, comply with civil law, support the rights of priests, deacons, religious and lay personnel involved, and uphold the right of those making the allegations to be safe from risk of harm.

Neither Robert nor his attorney, Patrick Canan of McLeod and Canan, St. Augustine, were in court Friday morning.

The woman's identity is being withheld because The Record has a policy of not publishing the names of sexual abuse victims.

In court Friday, she was accompanied by her husband and her attorney, Tania Schmidt-Alpers, who has a private practice but also works for the Betty Griffin House.

Schmidt-Alpers presented Chief Judge Robert Mathis with a prepared agreement, telling the judge that Robert's attorney had already agreed to its terms.

"I will sign this stipulated agreement," Mathis said.

The injunction keeps Robert from going within 500 feet of the woman's home or 100 feet of her car. It also prohibits him from "telephoning, contacting or communicating" with her and requires him to surrender all firearms to deputies, if he possesses any.

After the hearing Friday, Canan said in a telephone interview, "Based on her allegations, I felt that it was in his best interest of my client to agree to have no contact with her in any shape or form."

Schmidt-Alpers said that both the diocese and the San Sebastian have been "very cooperative," but that her client would probably not continue to work for the church.

"We're happy they stipulated to the injunction," Schmidt-Alpers said. "At least there will not be continued contact. Now she has an added level of protection."

© Copyright 2002 The St. Augustine Record and Morris Digital Works.