* Church placed Father Neil Doherty on "leave" in 2002
* Victims' lawyer says Doherty drugged his victims
* Doherty's lawyer says plea deal was in his best interest (Adds comment from Doherty's lawyer)
By Zachary Fagenson
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla,. Jan 14 (Reuters) - A South Florida priest accused of sexually assaulting young boys for decades pleaded no contest to a half dozen charges on Monday and could face up to 15 years in prison under a plea deal.
It is the first time criminal charges have been brought against Father Neil Doherty, 69, despite numerous civil cases that named him.
A civil case involving Doherty last year ended in a jury awarding $100 million to one victim, among the largest awards in the United States to compensate for abuses committed by a Roman Catholic priest.
"We have files going back to the 1970s showing the Archdiocese of Miami knew he was sexually abusing boys," Jeffrey Herman, an attorney who represents dozens of victims with claims against Doherty, told Reuters.
A spokesperson for the Miami archdiocese had no immediate comment.
Most of the cases against Doherty could not be prosecuted as they fell outside Florida's statute of limitations which sets a maximum of seven years after a child reaches adulthood.
Now retired, Doherty was placed on permanent administrative leave in 2002, effectively removing him from his church ministry. He has been in jail since 2010.
Doherty pleaded no contest on Monday to six charges in total, including two counts of lewd or lascivious acts upon a child and four counts of lewd acts in the presence of a child under 16. He previously faced more serious charges of sexual battery and could have faced a life sentence.
Under the terms of the plea deal he could now face 12 to 15 years in prison. Broward County Circuit Court Judge Kenneth Gillespie scheduled sentencing for Jan. 28.
Victims argue that Doherty used his influence and position to take advantage of young boys. Herman described how the victim from this latest case was first invited to Doherty's home and abused when he was a child volunteer at Doherty's church.
"Father Doherty gave him a soda to drink, and he drank the soda not knowing it was laced with drugs," Herman said. "He passed out and when he woke up he was being sodomized."
Doherty's attorney, David Bogenschutz, said of those allegations: "There's no proof of that. As far as Father Doherty is concerned these are fabrications."
The priest agreed to the plea deal because "he's getting sicker and tireder and older. At this point it was in his best interest," said Bogenschutz.
Throughout his career Doherty was moved through several churches and each time, according to Herman, new allegations of abuse surfaced.
Accusations of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, and complaints about how church leaders handled the abuse, have been the source of a long-running international scandal.
The U.S. scandal erupted in 1992 with a series of sex abuse cases uncovered in the Archdiocese of Boston that helped encourage other victims of abuse to come forward.
Some 3,000 civil lawsuits alleging abuse were filed in the United States between 1984 and 2009. An unknown number of complaints - believed to be vastly greater - were settled privately, often with confidentiality agreements, experts say.
The Church has paid out some $2 billion in settlements to victims, bankrupting a handful of dioceses. (Editing by David Adams, Tom Brown and Claudia Parsons)