Pride Center CEO Supporters: Stop the 'Witch Hunt'

Robert Boo. Photo via The Pride Center, Facebook.

The embattled Chief Executive Officer of the Pride Center, Robert Boo, has a job – for now.

He survived a vote to remove him last week for his handling, or as some would say mishandling, of the sex predator controversy that has engulfed the LGBT community center over the last month.

This week Boo was suspended for two weeks without pay. But for some members of the community that’s not enough – they want him to resign.

But is this a witch hunt? Some of Boo’s supporters sure think so.

“Oh for God’s sake! Let's move on. Robert Boo should not resign unless he has made other serious errors that I am unaware of. This is turning into a real witch hunt,” longtime local activist and lawyer, Robyn Bodiford, commented on SFGN’s previous coverage of the story.

Another supporter, Stephen Driscoll, wrote on Facebook: “This move to cut ties with the Pride Center smacks of political opportunism, bordering on a witch hunt. It's counter-productive for the whole community. Enough. Salem witch trials, anyone?”

Andy McNeil, a father of 7-year-old twins, disagrees.

“A witch hunt? Define witch hunt?,” McNeil said. “He was in a charge when a sex predator was breaking the law at the facility. He allowed him near our most precious asset – our children. There is no witch hunt there. Those are the facts. Our hope was that the board would speak with one unified voice and say the community center does not put an employee’s welfare above our children’s safety.”

Boo has come under fire for not taking action sooner to terminate the employment of a registered sex offender, Clarence Collins, 63, who confessed to raping an 11-year-old girl in the mid-90s and threatening “to kill her if she told.” Children regularly visit the Pride Center and use its playground.

Boo admitted he knew of Collins’ sex offender history all along, just not the details of the crime, and wanted to give him a second chance. But once the playground was installed, Collins’ employment at the Center was no longer legal since sex offenders aren’t allowed to work somewhere children gather. Boo later claimed ignorance of the law. Collins was fired on March 19 and later charged with illegally working at the Pride Center.

For now the scandal shows no signs of slowing down. Six board members have quit. Outraged parents have called for a protest of the upcoming Diversity Honors, a major fundraiser for the Pride Center that takes place Friday. Wilton Manors City Commissioner Julie Carson called for a discussion at this week’s city commission meeting on whether the city should sever financial ties to the Pride Center (the meeting took place after SFGN went to print, check online for updates).

McNeil, a member of South Florida Family Pride, has also called on Boo to resign. Even so, he still defends the CEO’s legacy.

“At the end of the day. Robert has served our community well over the years. He is absolutely a good guy. He is a great guy. He has done a lot for our community. Many of us know him and respect him,” McNeil said.

But regardless of how well McNeil personally likes Boo he believes the CEO must step aside in order for the organization to move forward and regain the trust of the community.

“No one takes any joy in calling for him to step aside. But this is a huge lapse of judgment that cannot be overcome,” Boo said. “When leaders make bad decisions, consequences happen. We need new leadership at the Pride Center.”

Not everyone agrees.

“I think all the calls for Boo and the board to resign immediately are overblown, and wonder if there is another agenda driving the demand,” Bodiford commented. “Yes, an inquiry must be had, but, we as a community must remember that we fought too long and hard to get a Pride Center in the first place and even if Boo was in fact (not saying he was) negligent, it's no reason to destroy the institution or even the man. Chill. Easy does it.”

While Debra Katz wrote on Facebook: “People make mistakes, the director, Mr. Boo has sincerely apologized. It is time to learn, grow, move on and forgive. We are all human and it is not our role to stand in judgment. The staff of The Pride Center has done far more good for the community than this unfortunate incident. The Center has many programs hanging in a delicate balance that people depend on to function and live. I think you have to look at the common good and the good works generated by the Center. The benefits far outweigh the cons.”

But even Boo’s detractors believe in those sentiments about the Pride Center and all of the good it does. They just don’t think Boo should be leading the organization any longer.

On Facebook Michael Broward pointed out that Collins was never accused of harming a child while working at the Pride Center.

“The sad part is that Clarence, despite what he did two decades ago, is still a better person than most of many of us today,” Broward said. “No one was ever harmed by Clarence, or anyone else for that matter, at The Pride Center in the 15 years he worked there. The ‘damage’ was completely theoretical and not actual.”

McNeil pushed back against that argument saying that unless an actual investigation takes place no one can say no child was harmed and no one ever complained.

“We don’t know that,” he said. “That’s why an independent investigation needs to take place and be conducted by a child welfare professional. That’s one of my requests to the board.”

Other people though are now blaming the playground and calling for its removal.

Marcello Galante asks on Facebook whether all visitors will be required to undergo criminal background checks before coming to the Center.

“Will they too need…checks because of this playground? IMO it was poor planning on the part of all parties involved. South Florida Family Pride bares as much fault as the CEO. Regardless of the Center’s former employee, it was never the ‘appropriate’ location for child safety. Tear it down. The playground is the problem....get rid of it and find it a new home.”

Some others commentators agree with that sentiment.

Bill Volbrecht wrote on Facebook: “The biggest mistake The Pride Center made was putting the playground there in the first place.” While another person, Todd Cortese, added, “Yes the playground should go. Problem solved. There are plenty of those available all over the county and state.”

Longtime local activist Michael Rajner had concerns about the playground even before it was installed. In 2015 he expressed that to the city commission with this email:

“As The Pride Center moves forward with their playground as LGBT safe space for LGBT families and children, I do hope they run level 2 background checks on their employees and volunteers to ensure those who are sexual offenders are properly screened so not to endanger the safety and welfare of those families.”

At the time Rajner wrote that email, he had recently completed his term on the city's Community Affairs Advisory Board and served as its chair.

Now he agrees the playground must go.

“I urge The Pride Center to immediately dismantle the playground to minimize their legal liabilities, and donate it to an organization better suited for this equipment so it goes to good use,” Rajner said.

Michelle Alves though doesn’t understand how people are blaming a playground.

“I get there are a ton of programs there for people who do need them. However they aren’t shutting it down. The man who hired this man knew and stated that he knew. It was not up to the CEO to give this man a second chance around children. That’s putting innocent kids at risk,” she wrote on Facebook. “How are people even sticking up for these people, blaming the playground? Sorry but gay people have kids to who also need a safe place.”

Ultimately it's the Pride Center that has the most to lose in this battle.

“We’re not stopping. We won’t stop. As an organization we feel it’s important to protect our kids at all cost. This is for the betterment of the community. This is not about an individual, ” McNeil said. “The reputation of the Pride Center is on the line. How will the Pride Center be perceived in the next months, years, decades? We want it to be a safe place for all of us. “

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