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Biloxi Diocese names 3 priests ‘credibly accused of sexual misconduct’

‘I couldn’t imagine that a man that I loved this much could do something so evil’

Susie McClernon is still dealing with the trauma of the sexual abuse her youngest brother, Kevin Hunter, suffered years ago. Hunter died in 1989.
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Susie McClernon is still dealing with the trauma of the sexual abuse her youngest brother, Kevin Hunter, suffered years ago. Hunter died in 1989.

Three priests in the Catholic Diocese of Biloxi were removed from ministry, and one was incarcerated, because they “were credibly accused of sexual misconduct of minors,” the Diocese announced Thursday.

The Diocese identified them as former priests Jose Vazquez Morales, Jerome J. Axton and Vincent The Quang Nguyen. In all three cases, the Diocese notified the District Attorney’s Office, a news release said.

The list does not include alleged abuse reported to have happened outside the Diocese by extern clergy who served in the Diocese, or allegations from before the Diocese was founded in 1977. Allegations from the latter will be released in the spring by the Diocese of Jackson, the release said.

“The Diocese of Biloxi has zero tolerance for sexual misconduct against children, youth and vulnerable adults and has a sound policy in place to address any complaints,” Bishop Louis F. Kihneman II said in a written statement.

Kihneman said he, like his three predecessors, “is fiercely committed to the protection of all God’s children from every form of abuse.”

Parish locations

Morales’ name came as no surprise. He was sentenced to prison for 10 years in 2016 for the sexual abuse of a 10-year-old boy in Jones County. Vazquez at the time was pastor at St. Francis Xavier in Wiggins and St. Lucy Mission in Lucedale. Before that, he was a parochial vicar at Immaculate Conception in Laurel and Sacred Heart in Hattiesburg.

Morales was prosecuted after a family member of the child reported abuse to the Jones County sheriff, and the Diocese notified the DA’s Office, the release said.

Former Priest Jerome J. Axton was prohibited from ministry in 1992 after he was accused in the sexual assault of a girl from 1985 to 1986. During that time, he was parochial vicar of Nativity BVM Cathedral in Biloxi and St. John in Gulfport. He later served at St. Alphonsus in Ocean Springs until Sept. 21, 1992.

Allegations against Axton were made directly to the Diocese.

Nguyen was removed from ministry in 1989 after being accused of sexually assaulting girls earlier that year. He was parochial vicar of St. Michael in Biloxi and Diocesan Vietnamese Apostolate. The parents first reported it to the Biloxi Police Department.

“We pray that the release of these names may not be a source of additional pain or suffering to those affected,” the Diocese release said.

Another case

Because of diocesan jurisdictions, Biloxi’s list did not include former Rev. Joe Romansky. Recently deceased Bishop Joseph Howze hired Romansky as associate pastor of Our Lady of Fatima in Biloxi in 1988. Romansky had been accused of molesting two boys in Cleveland while he was pastor of the Holy Family Church.

Romansky was accused in 1985 of playing strip poker with the boys, fondling their genitals and offering them money to perform oral sex. In a court deposition, Romansky said he lost a strip poker game with the boys and masturbated while they watched. He denied touching them.

Howze had invited Romansky to be associated pastor of Our Lady of Fatima three years later, in 1988. At the time, Howze told the Sun Herald he knew of the allegations but also knew Romansky had an alcohol problem and was undergoing treatment.

Romansky pleaded guilty in 1985 to disseminating material and/or performance harmful to juveniles. He was put on probation provided he check in to a rehab facility for treatment of alcoholism.

The Cleveland Catholic Diocese agreed to pay each of the youths and their families $75,000 to $100,000, Sun Herald archives show. Also, Romansky lost personal default judgments of $250,000 for each youth.

After four years at Fatima, Howze had Romansky reassigned to Cleveland.

A newspaper in Cleveland accused the Diocese of covering up molestation by Romansky and two other priests and transferring them elsewhere.

Nor does the Biloxi list include Francis Landwermeyer, accused of abusing minors before he was transferred to be principal at Mercy Cross High School in Biloxi during the 1981-82 school year. He came to Biloxi from Loyola University in New Orleans, where he was a professor. He is accused of abusing minors in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Landwermeyer was removed from the priesthood in 2010. The U.S. Central and Southern Province released his name with 41 others in December 2018. The province is comprised by its predecessors, which includes the former New Orleans Province.

After leaving the priesthood, he railed against pedophile priests and the church hierarchy, blaming them for compounding the abuse. He spoke out on his Twitter account and in a blog. He died Sept. 5, 2018, in San Antonio.

Addressing the problem

David G. Clohessy with the Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests said terms like misconduct are too vague and sanitzing for what actually happened to children.

He said releasing the three names was a “small, belated step forward.”

“We strongly suspect this is an incomplete list and beg the bishop to be more open,” he said.

“We hope anyone who has seen, suspected or suffered crimes by Jose Vazquez Morales, Jerome J. Axton and Vincent The Quang Nguyen or other Mississippi clerics will call law enforcement and get help from independent, trusted sources like therapists and our support.”

Kihneman said the Biloxi Diocese’s efforts to protect children began with a sexual misconduct policy as early as the 1990s. Also, school employees and social services workers signed consent forms and were processed through the State of Mississippi child Abuse Registry.

“However, it was obvious that we as the Diocese of Biloxi and we as the American Catholic Church were not doing enough,” Kihneman said.

In 2002, news of alleged sexual abuse and a coverup in the Archdiocese of Boston led to “dark days for the Catholic Church in America as more findings were revealed in the weeks that ensued,” he said.

That same year, Bishop Thomas J. Rodi addressed the crisis in the church, saying there would be no tolerance of abuse of minors. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, and the Biloxi Diocese revised its policy to match it, Kihneman said.

The Biloxi Diocese started running background checks in 2003, developed a training program for those who work with children and young people, and formed a review board to handle allegations, he said.

The diocese ran 9,211 background checks from 2003 through 2015, he said.

The diocese came up with a Safe Environment curriculum given to all young students who attend religious education classes and those attending Catholic schools. Kihneman said an average of 6,800 children in the Diocese receive the training each year, or more than 88,800 from 2004 to 2017.

The training has been given to 4,042 employees, 4,443 educators and 15,002 volunteers, he said.

The Diocese has encouraged “all institutions, public and private, to join us in shining a light of truth on a momentous societal problem.”

Susie McClernon is still dealing with the trauma of the sexual abuse her youngest brother, Kevin Hunter, suffered years ago. Hunter died in 1989.

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Robin Fitzgerald covers real-time news, such as crime, public safety and trending stories. In nearly 40 years as a journalist, her highest honors include investigative awards for covering the aftermath of the fatal beating of a Harrison County jail inmate in 2006 and related civil rights violations. She is a Troy University graduate.


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