Bishop Accountability

Fall River Resources – 2000

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Church apology failed to heal Fall River nun

By Peter Gelzinis
Boston Herald
March 12, 2000

Last night at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Bernard Cardinal Law led the local church through its own sacrament of Reconciliation, a collective mea culpa. He asked Boston's Catholics to join him in seeking forgiveness for the church's epic sins - like its inability to confront acts of sexual misconduct by priests, slavery in America, or the persecution of the Jews under Nazi tyranny.

Fourth among these Prayers of Intercession was a plea to forgive "the (church's) failure(s) to recognize the dignity of women, all of whom are created equal with men in the universal call to holiness "

A noble calling in the main, but what about the dignity of just one woman - and a religious woman at that, a Sister of Mercy by the name of Michaelinda Plante. For 43 years, Sister Plante devoted herself to the education of Catholic school children. Her once distinguished career culminated in the post of associate superintendent of elementary schools for the Fall River Diocese.

In August 1994, Father Richard Beaulieu, director of education for the Fall River Diocese, abruptly placed Sister Plante on an involuntary leave of absence. The priest indicated he agreed with his superior, Bishop Sean O'Malley of Fall River, who felt Sister Plante was "stressed and tired," and needed physical and psychiatric evaluation.

To this day, the hierarchy of the Fall River Diocese has yet to provide this Sister of Mercy with any explanation for a move that ultimately ended her career, her vocation . . . and effectively cut her off from her own religious order.

Perhaps that's because the explanation is every bit as byzantine and layered as the story behind it, one that can only be capsulized here. It involves the suicide of a young Winchester man, his mysterious parents, the Fall River chapter of the Samaritans organization, a nun's well-intentioned but disastrous attempts to serve as a "mediator" between the dead boy's family and the Samaritans. . . . and, as if all this wasn't bewildering enough, the heavy hint of scandal in the same diocese that had to endure tumultuous fallout over the sins of Father James Porter.

In the past five years, a 66-year-old nun seeking to clear her name and restore her reputation has dared to move her struggle beyond the cloistered walls of the church to the secular arena of the courts. She brought suits against the Fall River Samaritans for defamation, as well as the Fall River Archdiocese for wrongful termination. Her efforts to have Bishop Sean O'Malley deposed were met with a "motion to silence."

However Sister Plante's lawyers were able to subpoena Father Richard Beaulieu, the nun's former boss, to a deposition. But shortly before Thanksgiving of last year, Beaulieu reportedly told his parishioners at Fall River's Notre Dame Church that he was leaving the country at the request of Bishop O'Malley, the clergyman now being eyed to succeed John Cardinal O'Connor in New York.

In a nutshell, Sister Plante believed she was helping a family in its desire to "praise" the Samaritans' work by raising cash donations. The Samaritans, according to sources familiar with the murky recesses of this story, viewed the so-called "praise campaign," as a dubious attempt by the suicide victim's family to buy silence. Sister Plante's supporters believe Bishop O'Malley was informed of the potentially scandalous contents of the suicide victim's hot-line confessions. And the ultimatum was clear: Get rid of the "annoying" nun, or risk another embarrassing episode involving Fall River clergy.

It does seem strange, to say the least, that in five years all Bishop O'Malley will say regarding his former associate supervisor of elementary schools is he treated her with "fairness and justice" and never asked for her resignation.

The nun who was suddenly deemed unfit to continue in her avowed calling is now a valued volunteer with DSS counseling at-risk children. She passed all the offensive tests prescribed by her bishop. Now, she is left with no choice but to seek justice in the courts. Her church has turned its back to her. As this same church seeks reconciliation for sins on a grand scale, what about the minor injustices that cost a women of faith everything but her soul?

Jubilee Mass set for tomorrow

By Robert J. Barcellos
(New Bedford MA) Standard-Times
July 1, 2000

NEW BEDFORD -- Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, Rivet and Bonney streets, will host a Jubilee Year 2000 Mass at 10 a.m. tomorrow with the Most Rev. Sean Patrick O'Malley, O.F.M. Cap., as principal celebrant.

The Mass will be the fifth in a series of 10 scheduled at places of worship designated pilgrim churches, or sites for the holy year, by the bishop. Four have already been held, including the June 25 Mass at Kennedy Park in Fall River concluding the diocese's first Eucharistic Congress.

In inviting Catholics to make a pilgrimage, which he described as "a journey of faith to a holy place," Bishop O'Malley said the opportunity to make a pilgrimage during a holy year offers "a time of personal renewal, of reconciliation, of deepening our faith in Jesus Christ and commitment to his message, his gospel and his church.

Guidelines for persons making a pilgrimage during Jubilee Year 2000 require an individual to attend Mass or Vespers, make the Stations of the Cross, say the Rosary, devote time and to Eucharistic adoration or pious meditation. Such visits should close with the "Our Father," the Profession of Faith, and a prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Indulgences may be obtained provided the worshipper receive Communion, preferably the same as the pilgrimage church, visitation plus devotional prayers, and prayers for the Holy Father.

The Rev. Henry S. Arruda, pastor of the host church, will be a concelebrant of the Mass with the ordinary.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church is second of three parishes formed in New Bedford to serve Portuguese-speaking residents. The first Portuguese parish -- and the oldest in America -- is St. John the Baptist, begun in 1874. The third parish, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, dates from 1909.

The large number of Portuguese immigrants settling in New Bedford during late 1800s and early 1900s were preceded in 19th century by the arrival of men from the Western Islands -- or Azores -- who had arrived in New Bedford aboard whaling vessels and decided to stay.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel began with the announcement of the division of St. John the Baptist Church's parish boundaries to create a new parish in September 1902. The Rev. Jose Duarte Nunes, a curate at St. John the Baptist Church, would become the new pastor of the parish formed to serve Portuguese-speaking Catholics living south of Rockland and Potomska streets.

Ground was broken for the new church in April 1903 and the cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1903, by the Rt. Rev. Matthew Harkins, then bishop of the Providence Diocese. Mass was celebrated in the basement of the new church on July 16, 1904, by the Most Rev. William Stang, first bishop of the newly formed Fall River Diocese.

The church was completed in 1913 under Father Nunes' successor. The Rt. Rev. Msgr. Antonio Pacheco Vieira, who became pastor in December 1907, was to lead the parish for 57 years -- one of the longest pastorates in American church history -- until his death at 98 in 1964. He had been an active priest for more than 75 years.

Monsignor Vieira was followed as pastor by the Rev. Jose Maria Bettencourt e Avila, the Rt. Rev. Luiz Gonzaga Mendonca, both now deceased, and the fifth and current pastor, Father Arruda, who took over pastoral duties in June 1994.

Under Monsignor Mendonca, who also served as diocesan vicar general, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church underwent a $3 million renovation that included rebuilding of the Hook and Hastings Organ.

Two of the six Masses celebrated each weekend are still said in Portuguese -- those at 7 and 10 a.m. on Sunday. The Masses at 5 p.m. on Saturday and at 8:30 and 11:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Sunday are in English.

The parish has four parochial vicars -- the Rev. Jose M. Souza, the Rev. Michael M. Camara, the Rev. Marek M. Tuptynski and, newly ordained, the Rev. Scot A. Ciosek -- and two permanent deacons, Abilio Pires and Paul J. Macedo.

Story remains a dogged endurance in darkness
Churchgoer, Part 1: Unfolding the bewildering, often bizarre case of Sister Plante

By Bill McNamara
(New Bedford MA) Standard-Times
July 1, 2000

St. Augustine spent the better part of two decades plumbing the mystery of the Holy Trinity (three persons in one God). Then he wrote a book about it. He compared the effort with that of a small boy emptying the ocean into a hole he dug on the beach.

Reflecting on St. Augustine's experience on the feast of the Most Holy Trinity, I shifted my thoughts to a mystery that I've been pondering off and on for the past year. In terms of importance, it can't rival the Trinity, but I think it at least affords me a better appreciation for what Augustine endured.

And you can be sure I'm asking his intercession as I try to come to terms with an issue that is maddening in its complexity, its resistance to admitting the light of truth, and its dogged endurance in darkness.

A year ago, the editor of this paper asked me -- with disarming casualness, as I recall -- to take a look at the "Sister Plante case" and see if there's a story there. I've been looking ever since and, yes, there's a story there, and maybe a book, but it is a mystery still and one that defies reasonable accounting.

In the past year, I've talked with a hundred or more people about the case. I've read thousands of words (letters, news stories, legal papers) and written thousands more (all unpublished to date), but the black holes persist.

"It doesn't make any sense," the editor complains as he reads through the pile of typed pages. "It doesn't make any sense." The Sister Plante case mantra! And it's true. It doesn't make any sense -- to the person inquiring about it, the person reading about it, or to beleaguered Sister Michaelinda Plante, RSM, the former educator who is at the center of it.

But that is no excuse for throwing up one's hands and giving up. The story --incomprehensible and unfinished though it is -- won't go away. Indeed, it has been in the courts, in one form or another, for six years and remains so today.

We're at another time now -- after years of conflicting stories, legal wranglings, and aborted attempts to subpoena elusive witnesses -- when Sister Michaelinda, her attorneys and supporters express renewed hope that she may yet have her day in court.

And I do believe that, on this ancillary track that I'm on, it's important to sustain the quest for truth and justice by sharing what we do know and do believe in hopes that others who have information will come forward to fill in some of the dark places. It will take a couple of columns to just summarize salient facts of the case and some recent developments.

In August 1994, Sister Plante lost her position of nine years as associate superintendent of diocesan schools after a series of meetings in which Bishop Sean O'Malley, OFM Cap., said he found cause to question the nun's involvement with a controversial "praise campaign" in Fall River. The motives for the campaign remain murky. Some would say suspicious.

Until her appointment to the diocesan post 15 years ago -- a contract that was renewed for a 10th year just shortly before her separation -- Sister Plante had served as principal of St. Mary's School in Winchester. Some years after leaving, she says she was asked to intervene in a dispute between a Winchester family known to her and a Fall River chapter of a suicide-prevention agency, the Samaritans.

The family name Ross is said to be one of a few aliases assumed by Elaine Ross, purportedly for business reasons. Michael, one of two sons of Elaine and retired General John Ross, was a client of the Samaritans. (My efforts to meet a Ross parent have been unavailing. Some say there is no such person, by that or any other name. Assuming the Rosses are real, their ability to hide their identity in the midst of prolonged notoriety is uncanny and, to my mind, unprincipled. But to see things, if dimly, from the perspective of Sister Plante, we have to assume the Rosses are real.)

According to Sister's account -- in essence the only account available since other principals involved are refusing to speak -- she was a friend of the family and taught the son who later became a subject of deep concern for the family and the Samaritans. Through his teen years and early adulthood, he was a troubled, depressed drug-user who threatened and tried suicide. He died in 1995 from self-inflicted wounds, according to Sister Plante.

The Samaritans had become his lifeline but along the way things went awry and that relationship became troubled. In a desperate attempt to set things right (again, according to Sister Plante and others directly involved) the mother of this young devotee of the Samaritan hotline decided to mount a praise campaign -- public tributes from celebrities and politicians, along with donations of money -- for the Samaritans.

To the consternation of the mother who reportedly had been making her own contributions to the Samaritans, these new offerings of praise and funds were rebuffed by the Samaritans, at which point she asked Sister Plante to become a mediator. Why the Rosses and their supporters didn't just back off is another confounding matter. One observer attributed it to "the arrogance of the rich." He wasn't talking about the supporters.

With experience in counseling and mediation, Sister Michaelinda decided to intervene on the part of a family she regarded as friends. Which, it turns out, became her undoing, apparently because of strategies she used and the reception they got from the bishop -- based, he said at the time, on what he heard from the Samaritans but, according to Sister Plante, without any representations from her.

At this point, accounts of events became more conflicted. But, ostensibly because of what he learned from the Samaritans, Bishop O'Malley ordered a sequence of actions including mandatory leave and psychiatric tests for Sister Plante, and removal from her office and her convent, after which Sister submitted her resignation.

Subsequently, Sister Michaelinda sought legal redress, and the bishop explained the reasons for his decision. For her part, Sister Plante maintains that the bishop lied in his account of why he acted as he did, and that his deception is at least partly responsible for her present predicament (our of work, out of favor) and her recourse to legal remedies as a last resort.

First, she sued the people called Samaritans who had told the bishop she was a troublemaker. Case dismissed. She sued the diocese and the bishop. Case dismissed. Now she's suing her former attorney for his failure to manage her case properly. The discovery process, she believes, will reveal facts that should restore her reputation and her peace of mind.

The diocese, for its part, noted the confusion that "swirled around the matter in the press" during the early advance of litigation, while the record made clear that "the Diocesan Department of Education acted with fairness and justice in this matter." I have to confess that the record doesn't do that for me. Nor does it serve that purpose for the hundreds of Plante supporters, mostly Catholic, who blame the bishop for making Sister a scapegoat as they continue to raise funds to pay Sister's legal bills.

Bishop O'Malley said in his public statements that he consulted Sister Plante about the meeting he had with the Samaritans of Fall River-New Bedford, and also that he gave the nun ample opportunity to withdraw her resignation. Sister Plante insists there was no such consultation or any explanation to her for his decision.

In implementing that decision, Sister's superiors, the Rev. Richard Beaulieu and Sister Rosemary Laliberte, RSM, told Sister Michaelinda that she was being put on leave because she was "stressed and tired," according to Sister Plante, and that she would be expected to undergo psychiatric and physical examinations. She submitted to the tests, which supported her own contention that she was not unduly stressed at all, at least not until she was removed from office.

Another thing Sister says she was told by her superiors is that the Samaritans wanted relief from the pressing of the "Ross" family supporters including Sister Plante and they threatened a law suit if they didn't get relief.

That latter allegation has been disputed by a Samaritan board member who attended the meeting. Meanwhile, in recent conversations, the leadership of long-term Ross supporters aligned under the banner "Friends of Sister Plante" are acknowledging that the Ross campaign was motivated by more than a pure desire to praise the good work of the suicide-prevention agency.

This latter-day revelation unfolded only after persistent questioning from this quarter about the curious refusal of the die-hard praise-campaigners to relent once the Samaritans said stop.

"There was more to it," said Yvonne George of Quincy who says she was in the employ of Mrs. Ross as "an undercover agent" when the campaign was launched.

Her undercover work was directed at the Samaritans, says Ms. George, because for one thing a Samaritan staffer "was encroaching on her (the mother's) privacy," trying to invade her "compound" in Winchester, and her son Michael was getting into trouble on the hotline. On another front, the torrent of praise and donations was a "desperate attempt" by a "paranoid" woman, accustomed to having her way, to influence the Samaritans in her favor. The favor, according to Ms. George, would be to keep the lid on any embarrassing or damaging information about Ross relationships that might have been shared on the hotline.

It remains unclear how this message was explicitly conveyed, if at all, to an organization that is already sworn to confidentiality and anonymity in its client-dealings. But the Friends of Sister Plante (founded and led by Ms. George who says she regrets implicating Sister Michaelinda) now allude to "a scandal" which the diocese and the Rosses want to keep covered.

This is an astonishing turn of events that, while offered as a clarifying issue, tends to further obscure and embrangle relationships among the principals. It also adds a new and fantastic element to the mystery of the case, one that calls on the Rosses, if they are real and have closets containing more than clothes, to step forward and clear things up.

Or, if they're made up, it's time for the creative scriptwriters to give up the ghost and return to mundane living.

The stunning switch of focus tends to remove the onus from the Samaritans, who had denounced Sister's role, to the murky realm of scandal in the Ross-diocese relationship. Ms. George often refers to a lively relationship between Elaine Ross and the Catholic hierarchy, not limited to Fall River.

It adds fuel to the fire but, again, the light flickers and fades.

From another perspective, and based on all the data given me, Bishop O'Malley is also in a position to cast new light on the events that preceded and followed Sister's separation from her diocesan post.

In an affidavit filed with the Superior Court of Bristol County in May 1997, the bishop stated that he "spoke with Sister Michaelinda and reviewed the information which I had received from the Samaritans."

Sister, for her part, denies any such information-sharing took place.

In any event, the bishop considered the information, shared or not, to be serious and problematic. The Samaritans had complained about "unwelcomed pressure" from Ross supporters.

Bishop O'Malley professed in his affidavit to be concerned about Sister's "unauthorized use" of diocesan stationery with letters signed in her name as associate superintendent of Diocesan Elementary Schools which "implied an authorized connection between her (Samaritan) activities and the legitimate activities of the Diocesan Department of Education."

The bishop also referred to "circulated" materials presented by Sister Plante to the Samaritans which included the reproduction of Tarot cards, the use of which "is in complete contradiction to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church."

Sister Plante says she had no opportunity to explain that the reproduced Tarot cards, along with poetry and pictures of rock performers, were a fascination of Michael Ross and were given to the Samaritans at the request of Mrs. Ross as a possible therapeutic tool in dealing with young suicidal clients.

In a subsequent effort to clarify the diocesan position and the bishop's role, the Diocesan Office of Communications issued a statement that refuted reports that Sister was fired from her education post.

"Sister Michaelinda Plante was never dismissed from her position as Associate Superintendent of Schools for the Diocese of Fall River," the statement said. "She was placed on temporary administrative leave during which time she decided to tender a letter of resignation."

"Furthermore," the statement continued, "the Diocese did not act on her request for some time, thereby providing her opportunity to reconsider her decision."

The statement concluded: "Sister Michaelinda gave no indication she would withdraw the letter. After consulting with her religious community, the Bishop accepted Sister's request to resign from her position in the Diocesan Department of Education.

"In consideration of Sister's years of service in the Diocesan Education Office, an appropriate severance package was provided. Her monthly salary was paid for the remaining nine months of her contract. In addition, the automobile she had used while working in the Education Office was given to her community for her use."

In the light of the statement, one is left to infer that the diocese would have welcomed Sister's withdrawal of her resignation. But Sister confirms she was never apprised of that sentiment if in fact it existed. Nor, she claims, was she ever informed as to how her actions squared with the resulting administrative measures taken by diocesan officials -- the psychiatric and physical evaluations, the removal from office and living quarters, the monitoring of her office communications, the refusal to give her recommendations for employment, and the apparent failure of anyone in authority to assist the banished nun in renewing her religious vocation.

Attorney Daniel Gindes, representing Sister Plante in her latest suit which accuses a former attorney, Robert George, of malpractice, told me that the identity of the Ross family is not an issue in his case. He accepts Sister Plante's representation of the parents as a grief-stricken couple who lost a son to suicide and who value their privacy highly. "It's a private matter," he said and not relevant to this case Sister Plante is pursuing to uncover facts that will lead to her exoneration. A good move for now, no doubt, but in the long haul, this information cannot remain hidden. It's pivotal to Sister's credibility and to the resolution of her case -- case with a capital C.

Mr. Gindes and associate Susan Champa have experienced problems with the whereabouts of Father Beaulieu in order to serve a subpoena for deposition. The Fall River pastor and former superintendent was on rest-leave in Canada earlier this year. According to recent reports, both Father Beaulieu and Sister Rosemary have new assignments. This has made scheduling depositions, a recurring logistical problem, more difficult than ever.

A protection order filed by the diocese on behalf of Father Beaulieu was finally rejected by a Suffolk County Superior Court judge in April, signaling a rare break-through for the sister who is described by her supporters as a scapegoat and the only person damaged in a bizarre dispute that she sought to resolve peacefully.

A Prolonged and complex dispute
Churchgoer, Part 2: A look at the details, principals in the Sister Plante case

By Bill McNamara / The Churchgoer
(New Bedford MA) Standard-Times
July 8, 2000

The many-sided muddlement known as the Sister Plante case, about which and with due trepidation we wrote at length last week, is casting an even longer shadow today as certain aspects of the case unfold and surprise us anew with the prospect of revelations that may just lead to enlightenment and who knows -- a bit of resolution.

Sister Michaelinda Plante RSM is in the courts trying to rescue her name and reputation after losing her job -- or giving it up, depending on what version of the story you're listening to -- as associate superintendent of education for the Fall River diocese six years ago.

The aftermath has been an unholy mess, which is not about to be cleaned up in this space. One thing we know, Sister Plante has had a devil of a time getting people to testify for the record about what happened -- people who were there and who, in her opinion, were accessories of a sort to her sudden demise.

That situation will be improved later this month. Sister's attorney, Daniel Gindes, says Father Richard Beaulieu, who was Sister's superior in the office of education, will be deposed for testimony in Fall River on July 27. And Sister Rosemary Laliberte, who was Sister Plante's superior in the Mercy Order at that time, will appear shortly thereafter.

On another front, a Suffolk County Superior Court judge has ruled that Sister Plante will have to disclose the true identity of the Winchester woman who uses the alias Ross and who reportedly involved Sister in a prolonged and complex dispute with the Samaritans of Fall River and New Bedford, a suicide prevention agency.

Sister and a few of her supporters say they know the Rosses. But others who would like to know them -- or at least know who they are -- can find no trace of them.

As we were saying last week, the maddening mystifications, contradictions and curious explications surrounding the Sister Plante case have served to give the matter new life but little light for more than six years.

The controversy and perplexity that accompanied her loss of position persist today. Indeed, because principal actors in the strange drama, including those who initiated it, have retreated to the wings with sealed lips, the situation has only worsened and Sister Michaelinda is still adrift, within sight of but not reach of the moorings of vindication.

Sharing the spotlight reluctantly with Sister Plante in this bizarre case that shuttles in and out of our court system is the widely respected Capuchin monk who is bishop of Fall River-New Bedford, Sean P. O'Malley. My educated guess is that he is among those who want this story to disappear. Informants say that diocesan officials have been calling leaders of the nun's advocacy group with pleas to cool the rhetoric. In some of their letters and public statements, Friends of Sister Plante have maintained that the Bishop expected Sister Plante herself to just disappear when he turned her loose -- actually, put her on indefinite leave -- six years ago. And they're trying to prove him wrong.

Aided and abetted by the din of support from Sister's organized battalion of friends, the story has grown legs of its own (not in this paper but elsewhere) echoing the relentless demand for explanations and for restoration of Sister's reputation and vocation. (Anyone exposed to the torrent of claims and complaints from these sources, whatever their justification, can empathize with the Samaritans and their cry of "uncle." The Samaritans complained to the bishop about Sister's interventions on behalf of Mrs. Ross; they identified her -- mistakenly, I believe -- as the "conduit" if not the main perpetrator of the frenzy attending this intervention. There is evidence that the Samaritans contributed to the frenzy.)

Unfortunately, the bishop has chosen not to respond to requests for information or interviews. Advised by legal counsel, he's standing on those public statements he or his spokesmen issued some years ago even though they fall short of clearing up questions and confusions that continue to cloud the issues.

For example, when Sister Michaelinda Plante lost her case against the Samaritans of Fall River-New Bedford and resorted to a suit against the bishop a few years ago, the diocese called it "a regrettable development," but one that paved the way for enlightening disclosure. The diocesan statement complained that information from the Plante camp was "inaccurate and incomplete," but the court action "will offer an opportunity for the Diocese to document the facts about Sister Michaelinda's voluntary departure from her job and to bring some clarity to events that may have been misunderstood by the public."

Thereupon, for whatever reason, the diocese appeared to go out of its way to avoid those opportunities for bringing clarity to the dispute. Until now, unlike others involved including Sister and the Samaritans, diocesan representatives have averted deposition to testify under oath and advance the discovery process.

Sister's legal team recently mounted a renewed effort to depose Father Beaulieu and Sister Rosemary Laliberte RSM, the superiors who implemented the bishop's orders to place Sister Michaelinda on leave and put her out of her office and convent while she underwent psychiatric examination. The latest thrust follows a judge's ruling that Father Beaulieu cannot be excused from being deposed as requested by the diocese.

I would assume that the tactics employed by the diocese to avoid deposition are based on the same unrevealed reasons the bishop had for summarily separating Sister Michaelinda from her job six years ago -- reasons beyond those offered in public statements to date inasmuch as the terms of the separation didn't seem to be in the same park with Sister's "transgressions."

No, the forced resignation (not outright firing) of Sister Michaelinda seems not to have been warranted by all the revealed facts. But we have to consider the position of a bishop who knew more than he was willing (charitably, no doubt) to share about a problem that itself may have been bigger than any of the other participants could realize.

A learned priest who spoke anonymously about the issue told me he believes deeply that the bishop acted as a shepherd, in a way that was intended to save the diocese, the church, and -- yes -- perhaps even Sister Michaelinda, from grievous damage, damage that would occur from undue publicity and/or speculation about situations or relationships that are fundamentally personal and of little consequence to the public domain.

Said another close-to-the-scene observer: "He was saving her from herself."

Sister Michaelinda, meanwhile, shows no sign of having been saved from herself. She continues to be a spirited and sprightly 60-something woman with a vocation and a helping role to fill (foster home placements) even though it's not in her chosen field. And though she had to move out of her New Bedford convent, she continues to share housing with her longtime Mercy friend, Sister M. Christopher O'Rourke, former president of Salve Regina; their convent is in Tiverton.

The damage-control theory for some of its adherents was based on the assumption, it turns out, that Sister Michaelinda was exhibiting obsessive-compulsive behavior -- something apparently that the bishop's influential informants were able to discern, but not the psychiatrist who examined the besieged nun.

(By the way, an informant told me this week that the examining psychiatrist is no longer at her Fall River practice.)

Yes, it all sounds murkily medieval, almost other-worldly.

Whether that other world is a product of the Plante contingent's imagination or -- as speculated by members of that contingent -- a construction of a church leader who was embattled from the day of his arrival here, may not be known for some time.

Taking sides is a hard thing to do, and maybe ill-advised with so many blank spaces to be filled in. I came to this task, frankly, sort of predisposed toward the bishop's position, assuming that he knew what he was doing and that it was for the good of the order. Unwisely suspicious of a nun who would draw swords with her bishop, I was probably guilty of clerical profiling.

In short order, however, I shucked that parochial view. I spent hours, mostly pleasant and instructive, talking with Sister Michaelinda alone, and with her supporters, collectively and individually. I saw no signs at all that this woman might be over the edge -- the central figure in a charade or, as one interested observer put it, a cult.

My impressions of Sister Plante corresponded favorably with those of a priest who worked closely with her at St. Mary's parish in Winchester where she was the school principal. Here are some of the words and phrases from Father Mark Sheehan, now a pastor in Bedford, when I asked him how he would describe this Mercy nun and Rhode Island native:

"A marvelous person, competent and principled and extraordinarily loyal to the church. A good administrator who attained her Ph.D. later in life. A fine woman of great faith, well-informed, intelligent, purposeful and a very hard worker. A terrific person who is very giving, who puts the interests of the church before her own."

How can such a person come to the pass that has stopped Sister Plante in her tracks and, in a cruel if unintended way, labeled her a pariah?

It baffles me. Here are my hunches:

The person or persons who got her involved in this episode -- mediating a dispute between the instigators (the Ross family) and a social service agency (the Samaritans) while keeping her ill-informed -- are consumed by self-interest and, assuming they are real persons and not made up (if they are made up, this applies to the contrivers), should pay a heavy debt to the victim and to society for their unconscionable, self-serving demands.

The diocese and the Samaritans now say that the Ross family is a fiction even though the Ross supporters who now call themselves the Friends of Sister Plante insist that diocesan leaders and Samaritan leaders have done business with Mrs. Ross and were acquainted with her suicidal son. The son's poetry and art, collected and printed by Sister Plante, may yet come to explain a lot more about mysterious elements of the case. It must have loomed large in the bishop's decision-making.

There have been so many cited instances of Ross encounters -- meetings, phone calls, letters, newspaper interviews, etc. -- that it's hard to dismiss the Rosses as fantasy. Sister Michaelinda declared they were real in sworn testimony. She repeated that declaration to me and at the time I believed her even though she said it testily -- and later apologized for it.

Subsequently, I would think back on that exchange when I read a sworn statement by Yvonne George (Sister's most ardent and voluble supporter) to the effect that Sister Michaelinda was upset and apprehensive to learn that her old friend who sought her intervention was posing as a Mrs. Ross in her dispute with the Samaritans. The pose presumably was for business reasons. I checked my notes to confirm my recollection that Sister had told me she knew the family as Rosses when she was stationed in Winchester. But nobody we've talked to in Winchester including town hall record-keepers, retired military officers, and Sister's school secretary, recalls the Ross family -- or any family resembling the Rosses as described today.

Last week's column referred to "Michael, one of two sons of Elaine and retired General John Ross." It should have read "one of two deceased sons" etc. Michael reportedly died of self-inflicted wounds. Luke was a fatal casualty of the Vietnam war. Two other brothers, John and Mark, are said to be in the military. And there is a sister, Lisa, according to Sister Michaelinda.

Though leaders of the Friends of Sister Plante claim to know the Ross family, investigative reporters from metropolitan newspapers have come to dead ends trying to identify them.

The Friends group includes a number of parents whose children were helped -- or even "saved" -- by Sister Michaelinda in her years as a teacher/principal. It also includes some distinguished citizens who were drawn to her side by her current plight; these would include retired Fall River Councilor John Medeiros; Susan Lyman of the American Suicide Foundation; Helen Miranda, former United Way official; and some priests, nuns and politicians whose support is registered anonymously.

Finally, the group includes those, like Quincy Constable (and private eye) Yvonne George and Edward J. Florino, director of Veterans Services in Medford, who know the Rosses and helped to arrange media interviews with the general but came away from those experiences frustrated and unfulfilled. Mr. Florino speaks fondly of his friendship with General Ross. Once when I called for information, Mr. Florino said he'd just received a birthday card and a miniature auto in the mail from the general -- early because the retired officer was headed for Europe to pursue secret services for his government, according to Ed Florino.

As for Ms. George, she not only knows when the Rosses are in Europe, she knows when they're huddled with Cardinal Law in Boston discussing the Sister Plante case, or calling from London or Paris with word on Bishop O'Malley's chances to replace the late Cardinal O'Connor in New York, or later with word on how the bishop reacted to his non-appointment. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that she knows when the pope sneezes.

In a recent conversation, she spoke to me about the Ross connection and said something like: "But look, Bill, suppose the Rosses don't exist, or suppose I'm really Mrs. Ross, does that mean Sister should have been treated the way she was?"

Now, there's a thought: Were those supposings loaded?

Whatever the answer, Ms. George advises us not to hold our breath. "The Rosses will never come forth, anyway," she told me last week. But Ms. George has told me convincingly and repeatedly that she wants

In any case, such questions should be swept aside now with revelations of reality by those in the know -- not excluding the never-say Rosses. This is the church's Jubilee Year -- a special time for reconciliation and renewal, mercy and forgiveness. Let's not wait any longer for opportunities to discover clarity in this case; let's make those opportunities now and stop the bleeding.

I believe the time is nearing when Bishop O'Malley, personally or through his spokespersons, will shed more light on this quagmire from his vantage point. I hope it's enough to end the conflict and the sadness. I hope it removes that dark cloud from above Sister Michaelinda's head. I hope it serves to reunite us all.

Sister Plante case, Part 3: A hearing, few happenings

By Bill McNamara
(New Bedford MA) Standard-Times
July 1, 2000

As though responding to the laws of nature, the "bizarre" index in the Sister Plante case continues to rise.

A week ago, in a breakthrough development, the diocesan priest and the Mercy sister who were the banished nun's superiors when she was associate superintendent of diocesan schools finally testified at a deposition hearing in Fall River.

Up until that signal event, three involved religious leaders -- Bishop Sean O'Malley OFM, Cap., the Rev. Richard Beaulieu, former education director, and Sister Rosemary Laliberte, RSM, former mother superior -- had avoided appearances at a total of 11 scheduled hearings in the past five years during which Sister Michaelinda Plante has pursued legal action contesting the loss of her job and the way she was treated.

The records of recent depositions, including last week's, are being withheld from the public, but from what we have been able to learn about the most recent interrogations, it seems the breakthroughs came to a halt at the threshold of the hearing room.

It's my impression that the respected educator who lost her job because of her voluntary role as mediator of a dispute between a family of her acquaintance and a Fall River suicide-prevention agency was not thrilled with the outcome of the depositions. Neither were her attorneys.

One reason for the disappointment was the court-imposed restriction on lines of questioning by attorneys. The diocese had sought a protection order that would have canceled the depositions. Denying this motion, the judge settled on strict guidelines for questioning which, according to one source, "the other side used effectively."

Plaintiff questions had to be limited to the meetings between the diocese and the Samaritans (the suicide agency) preceding the decision to take certain personnel actions against Sister Plante. Off limits, according to Sister's lawyer, Daniel Gindes, were questions relating to "ecclesiastical processes." Accordingly, he was prevented from using questions he "would have loved to ask" such as, "Why did the bishop fire Sister?"

For his part, Bishop O'Malley has said he did not fire Sister Michaelinda six years ago, that she resigned after being put on indefinite leave. At last week's deposition, Father Beaulieu reportedly referred to it as a "vacation."

During the years of litigation, diocesan officials have refused to answer questions concerning Sister's separation, which included her removal from office and convent, monitoring of her communications and psychiatric examinations (she reportedly passed with flying colors.)

Curiously, the role of the elusive Ross family of Winchester has received little attention from the litigators in this plodding case. "Ross" is an alias assumed by one Elaine, who is described by Sister's supporters as an aristocratic and beautiful international business woman and a devout Catholic with close ties to church hierarchy.

If she and her family, including her suicidal son, Michael, now dead, and her CIA-linked retired Marine general husband, are purely fiction as now asserted by the diocese and the Samaritans, Elaine will cut a beguiling figure in the book and movie that some people are already talking about. But if they are real, and the rumored scandal linking Mrs. Ross with a noteworthy cleric turns out to be true, then we are in the midst of impending sadness and sorrow for these people.

Sister Michaelinda maintains that she knew the Rosses and Michael was one of her students when she was principal of a school in Winchester during the 1980s, and that Mrs. Ross asked her to help untangle the problem she had with the Samaritans who -- all of a sudden, it seems -- were rejecting her praise and her money, of which she has a bounty. The mediation didn't go smoothly.

The Samaritans complained to the bishop about Sister's unwelcome intercessions. The bishop said he would take care of Sister, according to sworn testimony by a former Samaritan. As Bishop O'Malley explained later, he was concerned about some of the representations made by Sister in her mediating. One of these was the presentation of a book of poetry purportedly written and illustrated by Michael who, before taking his own life, was a frequent user of the Samaritans' suicide hotline. Sister said Mrs. Ross believed the book could be a valuable resource for suicide preventers. Sister said she agreed, and she produced three copies of selected work, all now sequestered.

Bishop O'Malley expressed consternation about the inclusion of tarot cards and a picture of a rock star identified as Michael. But the poems, if genuine, are revealing of a bright though troubled mind and of situations that could conceivably have caused the young man's suicidal turn-of-mind.

One unflattering poem alludes to powerful clerics "at my mother's door, looking for money and so much more." The mother is "a lady of power who does not know when to stop." Even men of the church see her as "a goddess." And the author's drawing depicts a nude goddess holding an oversized chalice aloft. "I wish I could save you," the poet tells his mother, "but I can't even save myself."

"Born committing suicide," Michael is the son who "caused nothing but heartache and disarray." Writing again of his mother, he calls her a lovely woman who "stoops to folly," hiding her shame "from every eye" and giving "repentance to her lover, the fear of scandal is as to die."

Finally, the struggling young poet whose words say "Help!" assures us that facts don't always translate into truth, that "feelings hold the key. A work that aspires, however bad, will prevail and the truth will speak for itself." Unsettling thoughts and words, whoever the author is or was.

Sister Plante's supporters (close to 400 showed up at a fund-raiser last week) believe the bishop is hiding the truth that "will speak for itself." Those who defend the bishop say he is acting properly, protecting the church and society -- a higher order.

Since we started writing about this embrangled subject, hoping for more unveiling of hidden facts and motives, not an awful lot has happened. It's a painfully slow process. One wonders how Sister Michaelinda maintains her composure, and where she goes from here.

For some reason, the lawyers on either side are not seizing on the Ross link. Sister recently was ordered to divulge the real identity of the mysterious Mrs. Ross. Sister reluctantly complied. One might think: This could be the start of something big. Another breakthrough. But there's no follow-up that we know of; they're just sitting on it. Meanwhile, Sister, who already has given deposition testimony lasting five-and-a-half hours, is scheduled for another grilling in late October.

Mr. Gindes told me the other day that he's still uncertain about a deposition from the bishop, although it is under consideration. They'll make a decision soon, he said, and the case "will make its way to trial." A long, long way.


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