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    Help agency monitors molestation allegations

    By STEPHEN NOHLGREN, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 5, 2003

    CLEARWATER -- Religious Community Services, an agency in Pinellas County that helps the poor and homeless, is monitoring allegations that its director molested two teenage boys decades ago, when he was a priest and Catholic school principal in Nashville.

    Ron Dickman, 58, denied Tuesday he ever had sex with a minor, or with any student at Nashville's Father Ryan High School.

    "This is totally false," he said. "The people who know me -- there is no doubt in their minds. This has been a terrible torture, a nightmare."

    Stories about the alleged molestations first appeared in the Nashville Tennessean in October. Last month, after a Tampa Bay television station began asking questions, the agency's board of directors gave Dickman a unanimous vote of confidence and warned volunteers and funding sources of impending publicity.

    On Friday, the board also asked Tampa attorney Joe Magri, a board member, to examine the allegations further.

    According to the Tennessean, the accusations involve two alleged victims.

    John Kline, now 37, told the paper that Dickman befriended him when he moved to Nashville as a 16-year-old junior at Father Ryan. Dickman performed oral sex on him five times in Dickman's apartment, Kline said, but these encounters stopped after Kline got into a fight at school.

    A therapist's records show that Kline sought counseling in 1994 and named Dickman as his abuser, the paper reported. Kline said last year's sweeping publicity about priests and minors prompted him to come forward. He could not be reached by the Times.

    The other alleged victim is John Cunningham Jr., member of a prominent Nashville Catholic family who died of AIDS in 1991. According to his brother, Mark Cunningham, he revealed on his deathbed that Dickman had molested him in high school. Mark Cunningham then complained to his parish priest and Dickman left the priesthood two months later.

    Dickman acknowledged Tuesday that he once had a sexual encounter with John Cunningham -- not when Cunningham was a student at Father Ryan, but eight or 10 years later when he was an adult. They had mutual friends, Dickman said, and had stayed in touch.

    He also confirmed that Mark Cunningham's 1991 complaint accelerated his decision to leave the priesthood. Dickman said he was already edging toward leaving because he couldn't abstain from sex. "I needed a personal life," he said. "I loved the priesthood, but I didn't like lying. I didn't want to do it anymore."

    Both Dickman and the parish priest, Rev. Charles Giacosa, disputed that Mark Cunningham said anything about a high school molestation when he complained in 1991 -- only that a priest had had sex with his brother. "I have no recollection whatsoever of Mark Cunningham telling me of abuse involving his brother while in high school," Giacosa told the Tennessean.

    Mark Cunningham could not be reached for comment. However, Nashville counselor Joan Furman supported his story in an interview Tuesday.

    John Cunningham was her client for three or four years before he died, she said. During counseling, he repeatedly said Dickman molested him during high school, including times in the principal's office.

    Dickman said he is "flabbergasted" by Furman's account. He and John Cunningham remained friends through the years, he said. Cunningham "wouldn't have said I abused him, or hurt him or any of that stuff. I don't understand. It's impossible."

    After leaving the priesthood, Dickman worked several years at a Nashville crisis intervention center. He moved to Tampa to live with a longtime boyfriend in 1995, he said. He was hired to lead Religious Community Services a few months later.

    According to past board president Earl Mease, the agency received a positive recommendation from the crisis intervention center and others, but did not consult the Nashville diocese.

    "Our organization had been run by volunteers. He has come in and put it on a professional level," Mease said. "He is able to talk to other professionals in their language, which we couldn't do."

    The agency, supported by 81 churches and synagogues, runs a food pantry, homeless shelters and the Haven spouse abuse shelter in north Pinellas County. In Dickman's six years, the budget has grown from about $1-million to $4.5-million, coming from grants and donations. He is paid $65,000 a year and oversees 60 employees and 400 volunteers.

    Mease and past president Bill Trautwein both said the agency has received no complaint of sexual misconduct by Dickman. They also said he rarely interacts directly with clients, working instead through department heads and case managers.

    Trautwein, who was president when the allegations first surfaced, said he read the Tennessean stories, consulted Dickman and his Tennessee lawyers and concluded that Dickman was telling the truth.

    Then WFTS-Ch. 28 began calling. Convinced the story was about to become local news, the agency's 21-member board gave Dickman a vote of confidence Jan. 22 and sent a letter to employees, volunteers and people they do business with.

    "Ron has been an excellent ambassador to the community for RCS and he has performed, in an exemplary manner, all the job requirements set before him," the letter said.

    It also said Nashville prosecutors had "reviewed the allegations at the time they were made" and "the allegations did not warrant any further investigation."

    Actually, prosecutors briefly looked into the Dickman-John Cunningham connection in 1999 and drew no conclusion one way or another. The statute of limitations had passed for any possible crime, District Attorney General Torry Johnson said. There was no reason to look further.

    -- Times staff writer Chris Tisch contributed to this report

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