Fall River Resources – July 1–16,
Interview of Seán P. O’Malley with Antonio Enrique
Archbishop-designate Seán O’Malley found time during his first day in the archdiocese to meet briefly with Antonio Enrique, editor of The Pilot.
Q. Archbishop, your appointment is being received with expectation by the 2.1 million Catholics of the archdiocese. What would you like to say your new flock?
A. A greeting of great affection and love and an appeal for their prayers and for unity among our Catholics to help bring about healing in this very difficult time, so that as a Church we can reach out to victims of sexual abuse, help raise the spirits of our clergy, and inspire people to continue to be faithful to the message of Christ as members and disciples in the Catholic Church.
Q. You mentioned the priests. After a year and a-half of revelations, the Boston clergy, many would say, is demoralized, and even its unity has been somewhat fractured. There is a need to restore unity and heal those wounds. How high will this rank among your priorities?
A. That will be one of my highest priorities. Logically, it’s not something one person can do alone. I’m hoping I might be able to encourage and challenge the priests to minister to one another and to realize that in all the demands on their time, the parishes and pastoral activities, that the ministry to the fraternity of priest has to be a priority for all members of the clergy.
Q. You have scheduled in your first day a meeting with victims. Why?
A. Obviously, it is an important gesture to show that we realize the great dimension of the problems and that we want to be able to begin to reach and to hear from victims themselves their appreciation of their present situation.
Q. You are well aware that one of the most pressing issues at this point is the pending offer by the archdiocese to settle more than 400 pending cases. Do you plan to keep working in the same direction or do you plan to change the strategy?
A. I don’t know what has been done. I know that under Bishop Lennon there has been progress made. I will certainly do everything I can to promote that and to bring about the settlement. We see this as an important factor in the healing process.
Q. The demography of the Church is greatly changing. Many of the new immigrants to this country share our Catholic faith, whether they come from Latin America and the Caribbean, Eastern Europe or Africa. How do you plan to serve these new communities in a still very mono-cultural Church?
A. I have a lot to learn first. Certainly, in my own ministry I have been very involved in immigrant communities ever since I was ordained. In fact, I didn’t start to celebrate Mass in English until I practically became a bishop. I was working in Washington. Refugees were pouring in from the Caribbean, from South America... so it was a time when the needs of immigrants were certainly foremost in the needs of Washington... because originally I was slated to go to the missions, but then I was re-routed to work with immigrants in Washington. I was in Washington almost 20 years.
Compiled by Boston Globe Staff
Excerpts from Archbishop-elect O'Malley's press conference:
Good morning, everyone. Over the last 20 years, I've had many happy associations with the Archdiocese of Boston. It's the practice here to invite missionary bishops to help with confirmations, and for almost 10 years when I was in the Caribbean I would come up every year and help with confirmations. It was an opportunity to get to know many of the wonderful parishes in the archdiocese. My own Capuchin community, for many decades, has worked with the Cape Verdean community here in the archdiocese, and I have been privileged to come and give missions and celebrate Masses in Portuguese for the Cape Verdeans, the Portuguese, and the Brazilians. And, finally, as bishop of Fall River, I used to always say to our priests there that the new immigration to Fall River were the Bostonians moving down to the Cape and into Norton and Mansfield and the rest of the diocese.
But I never thought in all these 20 years that I would ever come back as the archbishop of this wonderful diocese. I'm still kind of shell-shocked by the news, which I got about 48 hours ago. The Holy Father has seen fit to name me your archbishop in this very difficult time, and I feel acutely aware of my own deficiencies in the face of the task at hand.
I ask for everyone's prayers and collaboration as I embark on this ministry. I am very grateful for my vocation as a Capuchin Franciscan brother, a Catholic priest, and bishop. The path has never been easy, but today it seems overwhelming. Still, I feel privileged to be called to serve in the church in Boston and hope that in some way I might become an instrument of peace and reconciliation in a church in need of healing.
The devastating effects of sexual exploitation of minors by members of the clergy have wounded us all, beginning with the victims themselves and their families, who suffered the poisonous aftermath of abuse. The entire church feels the pain of this scandal and longs for relief for the families and the communities that have been so shaken by these sad events and by the mishandling of the situation on the part of the church's officials. The church throughout our country has mobilized in an attempt to redress the grave errors of the past. ... The Charter/
Norms for the Protection of Children which were adopted in Dallas and confirmed by the Vatican, the audit process designed to measure compliance with the charter, the National Review Board, the Office for Protection of Children headed up by Kathleen McChesney, a former FBI agent, are but some of the steps taken by the National Conference of Bishops. Our individual dioceses are implementing policies and establishing independent lay review boards and programs to reach out to victims. Much has been done, much needs to be done.
I make the same commitment to you as I did to the people of Palm Beach. Reconciliation always demands a firm purpose of amendment. It means seeking new ways to avoid the grave mistakes of the past and to make the safety of children our paramount goal. As your archbishop I commit myself to working with you to ensure the safety and the well being of our young people in the church. This is an arduous task, and I truly ask for your cooperation. Together as Catholics - clergy, consecrated religious, and laity - we must work to bring healing and comfort to the victims of abuse and to guarantee that, through vigilance and education, our churches, schools, and agencies will be safe havens for children and young people.
I know that the laity has a great role to play in this process. I am anxious to hear firsthand from the bishops, priests, parish councils, and lay leaders about what is happening and what needs to happen. I know that the Catholic community of Boston is very grateful to Bishop Richard Lennon and his staff for all that they are doing during this time of transition. I will do all in my power when I become archbishop to bring to fruition the arduous task that he has begun. We are all anxious for the financial settlements for those who have suffered from sexual abuse. We know that no amount of money can ever compensate for the damage caused by abuse.
It is most regrettable that there was not more of an awareness of the great consequences in bygone days. If there had been, we can only hope that the church and the psychiatric community would have reacted more decisively in cases of child abuse. We hope that the achievement of financial settlements will be a factor in a process of healing.
I have always told dioceses and lawyers in the past that settlements are not hush money or extortion or anything other than the rightful indemnification of persons that have suffered gravely at the hands of a priest. Even when I have been told that there is no legal obligation, I have always said, if there is a moral obligation, we must step up to the plate. People's lives are more important than money.
In Boston, the numbers of victims are great, and the dollar amounts are staggering. We want to do right by the victims and, at the same time, carry on the essential elements of our mission, especially our mission to give people the good news of the Gospel and to serve the poor, the sick, and the marginalized. I am anxious to learn more about what the archdiocese is doing in its outreach to victims and hear from the victims themselves. We have made many mistakes in the past, but I think we are on the right path. I ask people to work with us.
As archbishop, I am gravely concerned about our priests and seminarians, so many fine men who want to give their lives to God and to serve God's people. I know the toll, the embarrassment the scandal has taken on your ministry. I ask you to pull together, to support one another, to realize that a crucial part of a priest's ministry is to minister to one another. I am your brother; I, too, have experienced the joys and the sorrows of being a priest in today's world. Your role is essential in the life of the church. We are a Eucharistic people, we need our priests. The whole Catholic community wants holy priests, happy priests, hard-working priests. Draw strength from the mysteries that you celebrate from your people and from your communion with your bishops and your fellow priests.
I take up the challenge of being the Archbishop of Boston because I love the church, which is the body of Christ.
I thank all the faithful Catholics who have stood by the church in these difficult times, who faithfully come to Mass and support the church and who witness to their Catholic faith by lives of discipleship. To those Catholics who have stepped away from the church, I say, do not throw out the baby with the bathwater. At times like this, we need to pull together as a church. The Catholic faith and practice has built a culture in our people of New England, sustaining virtues of honesty, solidarity, social justice, service to the poor, the sick, the suffering, protection for the weak and for the unborn. The community of faith has instilled a spirituality and a generosity that has helped thousands upon thousands of people to be good people, faithful spouses, loving parents, heroic citizens, self-sacrificing members of the community. The Gospel and the sacraments have strengthened generations of Boston Catholics to follow Jesus Christ, loving God above all and loving their neighbors as themselves and embracing the idealism and the solidarity that are essential for a civilization of love.
And so as the church is racked by scandal and by crisis, the stakes are very high. I appeal to all Catholics to help the church, to be a wounded healer by healing the divisions in our own ranks, so that we can be a leaven for good in the society in which we live. True discipleship of Jesus Christ is discipleship in the community of the faith. I address you, my fellow Catholics of Boston, with those words that inspired St. Francis when the crucified Lord said to him, ''Francis, repair my church.'' I ask you and plead with you: Repair my church. God bless you.
On what he meant when he referred in his statement to being acutely aware of his deficiencies:
It's such a huge diocese, and to come in at a time of such a great crisis, I think almost any human being would feel inadequate. I certainly am heartened by the wonderful collaborators I am finding here and by the goodness of the clergy, the people, and the religious. But it is an overwhelming task, and I ask for everyone's prayers and for their support.
On what he will say to the victims of clergy abuse:
I will try to convey to them the sorrow of the church for what has happened to them, but, most of all, I want to listen to their words, their advice, and their concerns.
I haven't decided where I will live. As I tell people, this is my fourth reincarnation. At my first diocese, there was a very nice, large bishop's residence, but I preferred to live in the rectory of the cathedral. At Fall River, they had a bishop's residence that had been there for 100 years and that was near the chancery office, and so I stayed there. In Palm Beach, each bishop had lived in a different house, so I chose the smallest and the closest to the chancery to live. Obviously, as a Franciscan brother, I prefer to have the simplest quarters, but it will take time before I have the lay of the land and see what is the most practical thing for me to do.
Well, I'm not really that cognizant of everything taking place in Boston, so I don't feel that I'm in a position to make comparisons. In Fall River ... it was a very overwhelming situation, as well, and I was coming from a very small missionary diocese. I had no experience of this sort of thing at all, but we came up with what I thought were good policies, and we built those policies out of the recommendation of victims, victims' families, law enforcement people, psychologists, judges. And when we came up with the policies, we published them in the paper and asked people to write in with their suggestions, and many people did, and then we adjusted the policies according to people's reactions. ... They weren't perfect. I know there were many things over the years that helped them improve. I think listening to the people was the biggest help, and I hope to be able to do that here, and I know a lot of that is already taken place.
I think that there has been a lot of improvement in Palm Beach. I'm not saying people are completely over the traumas they went through, but I found a lot of enthusiasm and support from the people of the parishes. ... I was very surprised to be changed so quickly. I really thought I would be there for the rest of my days, actually.
I've always told the nuncio that I feel as though Capuchin bishops should be bishops only in the missions, but apparently my advice was not taken. I started off in the missions and was kind of surprised to come back to the states. ... When you're a Capuchin seminarian, being a bishop in the United States is not on the radar screen, believe me, especially Boston.
Well, I'm going to eat those powder milk biscuits. You know, the ones for shy people who eat them and get up and do what's got to be done. ...
Well, it's hard for me to say what changes I would make, since I'm not sure what's transpiring here. But certainly, in Fall River, we had to take an insurance company to court to get them to pay, but we tried to settle as quickly and as equitably as possible, and we used a team of arbitrators to work with the victims in order to make the allocations. ... I know a lot of progress has been made, but obviously there have been many obstacles here. I'll try and do whatever I can to expedite the situation.
Well, as I mentioned in my introductory remarks, I think obviously there was not an awareness in the past of the profound damage done to victims. I think if people had realized that, they would have taken this problem much more seriously. But I think they saw it as a moral problem and not as a sickness or a compulsion on the part of the predators. And, as I say, I don't think there was even any inkling of how devastating such an experience is for a child.
Well, I have said it many times, ... as much as I can represent the church
as a bishop, that I do ask for forgiveness for these horrendous crimes
or sins that have been committed - the whole church feels ashamed and
pained - and do ask for their forgiveness again and again.
By Peter Gelzinis
The expectation is that Bishop Sean P. O'Malley will bring healing to the self-inflicted wounds of the Boston archdiocese.
But that won't be the only remnant of the 10 years he spent trying to repair the damage done to the Fall River diocese by James Porter, a pedophile in a Roman Catholic collar.
What O'Malley also will bring back from his time in Fall River is a story that still smolders in the memories of some for its stunning lack of compassion.
For almost as long as O'Malley was bishop of Fall River, the strange saga of Sister Michaelinda Plante - a 69-year-old Sister of Mercy removed from her position as associate superintendent of elementary schools in the Fall River diocese - continued to slog its way through a maze of lawsuits and ill-fated depositions.
In 1997, Sister Plante formally sued her bishop, charging O'Malley had wrongfully banished her from her post. The firing eventually forced this nun to leave Fall River and seek shelter in a Tiverton, R.I., convent.
Contacted yesterday, Sister Plante was somewhat reluctant to say anything, "because the Vatican has yet to make the official announcement." Not long after the pope sent O'Malley to Florida to close the wounds of the Palm Beach diocese, Sister Plante instructed her lawyer to finally close her case. "I was just too tired to keep fighting anymore," she said.
Though a modest out-of-court settlement for ineffective counsel finally brought the legal wrangling to an end, Sister Plante insisted her case was never resolved. "Bishop O'Malley may have settled the Porter case," she said. "But he certainly didn't settle mine." Three attempts to have Bishop O'Malley deposed were met with "motions to silence" - a tactic not unfamiliar to his predecessor, Bernard Cardinal Law.
Beyond the words "stressed and tired," this nun said her former bishop never explained why the locks on her office doors were changed, why she was cut off from her religious order and sent off to be examined by shrinks . . . whose tests she passed.
But then, it's hard to find an easy answer in a byzantine story. This nun's story involves the suicide of a Winchester man who was once a student of Sister Plante's, his mysterious parents, the Fall River chapter of the Samaritans and this nun's well-intentioned but disastrous efforts to serve as a "mediator" between the suicide victim's family and the Samaritans.
In a desire to express their appreciation for the time the Samaritans took talking with their suicidal son (who had been a student of Sister Plante's years before), a Winchester family embarked upon a fund-raising effort they called a "praise campaign." Sister Plante claimed she was asked by the man's parents to serve as their bridge to the Samaritans.
For their part, the Samaritans allegedly saw this "praise campaign" as a dubious attempt by the nun and the suicide victim's family to buy silence, for whatever may have been said during confidential hot-line confessions. Sister Plante's supporters believe Bishop O'Malley was informed of the potentially scandalous nature of the suicide victim's confessions.
"I do believe," Sister Plante said yesterday, "that he (Bishop O'Malley) had information that he didn't want to get out. If not, why would he refuse to answer our questions?"
Daniel Gindes, the last lawyer to stand with Sister Plante, conceded that even he is left pondering some of the black holes of this case. But he remains convinced that "Sister got a very raw deal. This was not a woman who was unbalanced, not at all. This was a case that was handled poorly. I'll never understand why this woman was given so little slack, why they were so quick to get rid of her, so harsh in their treatment of her, when they were obviously cutting priests all kinds of slack. Yes, it would be nice to finally get answers to those questions."
Fall River Decisions
By Stephen Kurkjian and Walter V. Robinson
Fall River priest was allowed to continue as a missionary in Bolivia for eight years after Bishop Sean P. O'Malley was told by a woman that she had been sexually molested by the priest for seven years beginning when she was 9, a spokesman for the Fall River Diocese confirmed last night.
The priest, the Rev. Donald J. Bowen, was not removed from his ministry with the Society of St. James the Apostle until he was indicted last September for the alleged sexual molestation of the woman. Bowen is awaiting trial.
John Kearns, the diocesan spokesman, said that after O'Malley met with the woman in 1994, he sought and received assurances from Bowen's superiors in Latin America that he had no unsupervised access to children. ''Bishop O'Malley demanded that guarantee and received it,'' Kearns said.
O'Malley, reached by telephone last night, defended his handling of the Bowen case, saying his actions conformed to ''the letter of the policy'' he had instituted in 1992 to deal with allegations of abuse against priests.
At the time, according to Kearns and O'Malley, the diocese's strict sexual abuse policy required that even old allegations be reported to authorities, that offenders be removed from parish ministry, and that they receive psychological evaluation.
In Bowen's case, there was reason to believe at the time O'Malley met with the woman, who was then in her 30s, that the charges against the priest were credible. The Fall River Diocese, in January 1992, settled a civil sexual abuse lawsuit brought by the woman. O'Malley became bishop of Fall River in August 1992.
O'Malley acknowledged last night that he did not report Bowen to civil authorities - either the Department of Social Services or the Bristol County District Attorney's office - because the woman was no longer a minor when she brought the allegation to his attention.
''The law mandates reporting of any allegation of abuse of a minor. The woman was no longer a minor. That's why we didn't report it,'' O'Malley said.
O'Malley said he was assured by the Boston head of the Society of St. James that Bowen would have no access to children and would not perform any other priestly duties like celebrating Mass. Bowen, he was told, was working on a history of the Society and its work in Bolivia.
''To me, that meant he was removed from parish ministry, which is what my policy required,'' O'Malley said. In addition, he said he was assured by the Society of St. James superior that Bowen would receive periodic psychological counseling and evaluation.
There are no known allegations of abuse by Bowen during his 30 years in Bolivia.
Earlier yesterday, before the Globe asked Kearns about the Bowen case, the spokesman said that even when an old allegation was brought to O'Malley's attention by a victim or some other means, ''he treated it the same way as he treated new allegations: vigorously pursue them and, if there was any credibility to them, seek removal from service.''
Even though Bowen had been doing missionary work since 1971, he remained a priest of the Fall River Diocese and under the direct control of O'Malley as diocesan bishop, according to two canon lawyers.
The handling of Bowen's case appears to be a puzzling aberration for O'Malley. In 1992, he was hailed for his swift, soothing treatment of scores of victims of pedophile priest James R. Porter, for helping facilitate settlement of their claims, and for becoming one of the first American bishops to devise new policies covering reporting of abuse, removal, and treatment of offending priests and training of all diocesan employees.
At the time, there was no national policy by US bishops for handling sexual abuse cases. O'Malley drew praise for both formulating the policy and for seeking input from the public and victims.
O'Malley's Fall River record is now widely seen as a major reason he has been chosen to head the nation's most troubled archdiocese.
But he did, in one recent instance, face criticism on the issue. Just as O'Malley was preparing to leave Fall River to become bishop of Palm Beach last September, Bristol County District Attorney Paul F. Walsh Jr. accused O'Malley and his aides of impeding Walsh's efforts to obtain information about priests who had molested children.
In response, O'Malley issued a statement insisting that the diocese had cooperated fully with the prosecutor's requests for records about abusive priests. But at the time, prosecutors said the diocese had provided little information about some of the abusive priests and nothing at all about some others.
In one instance, prosecutors said last October, the diocese did not disclose to Walsh's office that allegations had been made against the Rev. Edward Paquette. When prosecutors confronted diocesan officials, they said Paquette was dead. To prove it, they provided a death certificate.
The death certificate was for Paquette's father. Father Paquette, who left the active priesthood long before O'Malley arrived in Fall River, is 74 and living in Westfield.
When Walsh cited the alleged recalcitrance of the diocese last year, he also made public the names of 20 priests from the Fall River diocese who had been credibly accused of sexual abuse since the 1950s, but whose cases were too old to prosecute. And he announced the indictment of Bowen, for alleged sexual abuse that did not end until shortly before Bowen became a missionary.
The Bowen indictment was made possible because the priest had left the state, and the statute of limitations on the alleged crime was therefore frozen in time. After the indictment, Bowen returned to Bristol County to face the charges.
Of the 20 priests, two were removed as pastors by O'Malley last year when allegations against them surfaced.
When the district attorney criticized O'Malley last fall and took the unusual step of making public the names of priests who are not being charged, O'Malley reiterated the breadth of his policy.
''When I came to Fall River, I was unaware of old cases of child abuse. I was focused on the Porter case and how to establish policies to ensure the safety of our children,'' O'Malley said in the statement on Sept. 28. ''After the policies were in place, I tried to bring any past cases that came to my attention into conformity with those policies.''
Not until last year were clergy first required under state law to report cases of suspected sexual abuse of minors. But in a separate statement Sept. 26, O'Malley said that during his 10 years in Fall River, the diocese ''committed itself voluntarily to follow the reporting laws'' of the state.
Kearns, asked about that yesterday, said: ''The bishop said that any old case that he became aware of he treated under the current policy which was to make all referrals to civil authorities.''
Last September, however, O'Malley said he would have turned over the names of the 20 priests earlier ''if I had any indication that civil authorities were interested in prosecuting these older cases.''
Kearns, in the interview yesterday, said O'Malley did not conduct a full review of diocesan priest personnel files after he arrived in 1992. That was because there was no sense that there was any major problem, Kearns said.
Asked why O'Malley would not have ordered a full review of personnel files, Kearns said: ''It was only last year that anyone knew the extent of the problem involving other priests. Before that, the priority was instituting a policy that would deal vigorously with new allegations, which is what Bishop O'Malley concentrated on here in Fall River.''
Kathleen Hennrikus and Matt Carroll of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.
O'Malley appointment highlight's Norton case
By Staff and Wire Reports
NORTON -- Bishop Sean O'Malley's appointment as head of the Archdiocese of Boston has thrust sexual abuse allegations against a former Norton pastor into the spotlight.
An organization of alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse is questioning the way O'Malley handled the case of Father Donald Bowen, who had pleaded innocent to sexual abusing a young girl at St. Mary's Parish where he was pastor from 1965 to 1973. The questions are in sharp contrast to portrayals of O'Malley, who has generally been praised for his handling of sexual abuse cases while serving as bishop of the Diocese of Fall River, where he handled the case of former North Attleboro priest James Porter.
`` Everybody is so desperate for a hero, they're willing to tout him as a hero before he does anything that warrants that,'' said Ann Hagan Webb of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
While he was bishop of Fall River, O'Malley allowed Bowen to continue working at a Bolivian mission for eight years after the allegations of repeated sexual abuse of the young girl was reported to him, according to a spokesman for diocese.
Spokesman John Kearns said O'Malley followed diocesan policy in the case involving the Rev. Donald Bowen, and maintained that the unidentified woman who told O'Malley her story was comfortable with his response.
`` He believes the person was satisfied on that count,'' Kearns said.
Kearns added that Bowen's superiors in Bolivia guaranteed he would be periodically evaluated, and that he would have no contact with children.
But for Webb, the assurance is inadequate because it's impossible to know how closely Bowen was supervised. She says she's troubled by O'Malley's handling of the Bowen case and that his reputation as a savior of troubled dioceses may be `` overblown.''
`` This man has a reputation for being wonderfully well-spoken and coming across as understanding of survivor issues,'' Webb said. `` That's great. Let's see him do something.''
O'Malley's appointment as archbishop of Boston was announced Tuesday by the Vatican. He has returned to his current post in Palm Beach, Fla., and did not immediately return a message left with the diocese spokesman there.
Bowen, who has pleaded innocent, is free on bail as he awaits trial on charges including indecent assault and battery. His attorney, Peter Muse, did not return a call for comment.
In a case first reported in The Sun Chronicle in April 2002, the victim in the Bowen case, now in her late 40s, said Bowen molested her between 1965 and 1971, starting at age 9. Bowen left the country a few years later to work at the Society of St. James mission in Bolivia, a move that froze the clock on the statute of limitation, enabling prosecutors to file charges last year.
The woman settled her lawsuit against the Fall River diocese in January 1992, seven months before O'Malley became bishop there. The woman met with O'Malley in 1994, seeking assurances that Bowen would not be around children.
Bowen pleaded innocent last October to charges in connection with the alleged abuse. He is now awaiting trial.
The Fall River policy mandated that even old allegations be reported to authorities, something O'Malley didn't do. Kearns said that when an adult reports abuse to the diocese, officials leave it up to the person to go to the police due to privacy concerns.
`` If he or she wished to report it, fine,'' he said.
The Fall River policy that guided O'Malley in the Bowen case was a sweeping reform he enacted to repair damage caused by former North Attleboro priest James Porter, a convicted molester.
Its general success is believed to be a key reason the Vatican assigned O'Malley to Palm Beach to repair damage left by two previous bishops who both admitted to molestating children -- and now to Boston.
Despite his reputation as an able crisis manager, O'Malley's past handling of sex abuse cases was not universally acclaimed.
Last year, Bristol County District Attorney Paul Walsh criticized O'Malley for what he said were delays in giving him the names of 20 priests accused of child abuse.
O'Malley said he was unaware of the old abuse cases because he was focused on Porter. He said after new policies were enacted, he brought past cases to authorities when he learned of them.
In a move criticized by some civil rights advocates, Walsh publicly released the priests' names, even though none of the priests could be criminally charged because the statute of limitations had expired.
`` To sit there for 10 years and pretend that there are no other cases
in Bristol County perpetuates a falsehood, and I'm not going to be a part
of that,'' Walsh said at the time.
By Nell Escobar Coakley firstname.lastname@example.org
Locked out of her office, put through a series of unexplained psychological tests and forced to move out of her convent home, Sister Michaelinda Plante has spent years filing lawsuit after lawsuit in an effort to regain her job, her home and her reputation.
Now, almost a decade after trying to convince a skeptical public of church wrongdoing, Plante's case is finally over (see related story on Page 1).
A Sister of Mercy and associate superintendent of schools in the Diocese of Fall River, the nun and former Medford resident was dismissed from her position by Bishop Sean O'Malley in 1994 while trying to mediate a dispute between the city's Samaritan organization and a prominent Winchester couple.
The couple was known as Gen. John and Elaine Ross, although that was apparently a false surname they adopted because of Gen. Ross' CIA and military background. The dispute began after the couple's son, Michael, committed suicide following numerous calls to the Samaritan hotline in Fall River. After his death the Rosses attempted to make several donations and procure testimonials for the Samaritans, which the organization declined to accept.
Friends and supporters of the nun say she had no clue what she was getting into when she volunteered to help the Ross family, whom she knew from her days as principal of St. Mary's School in Winchester. Yvonne George, who worked for Elaine Ross, said Plante wasn't made aware of what was truly going on until the deposition of former Samaritan of Fall River Executive Director Ellie Leite in December 1999.
"She kept saying she didn't understand what was going on," George said. "We didn't tell her until Ellie Leite was deposed and that's when she learned the truth, not just bits and pieces."
That truth apparently involved attempts to cover up an affair between Elaine Ross and a local priest, who was in fact Michael's father.
"She assumed the dispute between Mrs. Ross and the Samaritans had to do with Michael calling the hotline and the Samaritans not taking the money or the praise," George said. "She didn't know Mrs. Ross and I were trying to hide the scandal. She was upset and said she would have never gotten involved if she knew and we knew that too, which is why we never told her."
The mysterious Mrs. Ross
To understand the Plante case properly, George said one has to go back to the beginning, not 1994 when Plante entered into it, but the late 1960s.
George confirmed an earlier story by the Transcript in which former Medford Director of Veteran's Services Ed Florino, now deceased, stated that the woman he knew as Elaine Ross had an affair with a local member of the clergy. Although Florino stated Elaine Ross never mentioned her lover's name, she did say the affair started at the beginning of the Vietnam War.
"She said she was a lonely person and that she had to confide in someone and that she confided in a priest she knew," Florino said at the time. "She said they finally ended up starting an affair."
Florino went on to say Elaine Ross also revealed Michael was the son of this priest. Florino also said Mrs. Ross never told her husband about Michael's parentage or her affair.
However, in a letter to the Transcript last October from a man claiming to be John Ross, the man stated it was not until a published story appeared about the affair that he knew about what happened. Gen. Ross stated the "interview with prominent Winchester residents who know my wife, and with those who knew a former Medford/Winchester area priest now is a bishop, gave support to the idea that offered some explanation for my wife's fears and her desire to secretly contribute money to the Samaritan organization."
He said he could not "confirm or deny my wife's past history with bishops and cardinals within the church hierarchy. What I will say is that we regard this matter as a private family issue which is very painful. I do confirm that I am not Michael's biological father and that I deeply regret this matter ever had to become a public issue."
John Ross also confirmed that his wife's real name is Elaine Vanderbilt, the name cited by Plante after a court ordered her to reveal who the Rosses were and that until recently the couple resided in the Myopia Hill section of Winchester.
"When Michael came to St. Mary's, she was using Ross," Plante said. "He was Michael Ross at St. Mary's. At some point, someone made a comment about her real name and I asked her and she said it was Vanderbilt. She said she would appreciate that I never share it."
Plante said she kept the secret until asked by a court to give the name. At that point, she said she talked it over with the Rosses and was given the OK.
"I told her I would not lie in an interrogatory," Plante said. "I said if I was specifically asked, I would tell the name, but no one asked me until the end. She said, 'It's OK. They'll never find me anyway.'"
Terry Mack, current co-chairman of the Winchester branch of the Friends of Sister Plante and a longtime friend of the Rosses, also confirmed that indeed it was Elaine Vanderbilt who had an affair with a local priest, producing a son.
"It was rumored that Mrs. Vanderbilt had close ties with the Catholic Church hierarchy and purportedly had an affair with a Winchester area priest who later became a bishop during the years when her husband was in Vietnam," Mack wrote in a released statement. "Elaine Vanderbilt's personal and confidential friendships with bishops and cardinals are a private matter. I cannot verify the name of the bishop who Elaine Vanderbilt had an affair with. The rumors that circled around this story indicated that her son Michael was the child of this bishop."
Although the affair ended and the Rosses went on with their lives, George said she suspects that Michael somehow found out of his mother's affair and his parentage, causing him to begin calling the Samaritan hotline in Fall River.
"I think she was desperate to stop Michael from becoming attached to the hotline," George said. "The Rosses always suspected that he may have known that his father was a priest, but they certainly never told him."
George said Michael ended up sending Leite a poetry book, and one poem depicted his mother as a goddess of the church and hinted at an affair.
"You can't blame Ellie Leite for getting scared and going to Bishop O'Malley," she said. "You can't blame him for being scared. I'm sure he felt the threat of scandal and he was concerned about this information being released over the hotline."
In May 1993, Michael attempted suicide, George said, and his father had him flown to Camp LeJeune, where he remained on a respirator until he died in 1994. She said the Rosses wanted the body moved immediately to Berlin, Germany where Mrs. Ross has ties.
George added with John Ross' military and CIA connections as well as Michael's short stint as a Marine, the airlift was easy to arrange.
"I think Ed Florino took all the secrets of the military airlift to his grave," she said. "He told me he was afraid that he was going to be called to testify to a military investigation."
That investigation, according to the letter from John Ross, is still ongoing.
Samaritans, the bishop
Once Michael Ross was buried, George said she was asked by Florino, whom she met in Medford during a veteran's ceremony, to work for Mrs. Ross. She said she was asked to keep an eye on the Samaritans and Leite to see what the group would do with the information Michael supplied via the hotline.
She added that in 1992, Mrs. Ross had begun sending money to the Samaritans in order to keep them quiet about what Michael might have told the hotline. Once Michael died, George said Elaine Ross asked her and Florino to put together a campaign praising the Samaritans for all they do with suicide prevention.
George said the problems began when Leite balked at receiving plaques and letters from public officials that all looked as if they were typed by the same person. She said she was asked seek out Plante by O'Malley after a private visit where she discussed Michael's calls to the Samaritans and Mrs. Ross' donations.
She followed the advice, but never told Plante that the true fear was over what Michael may or may not have told the Samaritans.
"I went to see the sister during the July Fourth weekend in 1994 because the Rosses said she was highly regarded and credible," she said. "She was the best person to mediate the dispute and she agreed to do it."
George said Plante started speaking to Leite and other Samartian officials, asking what had happened to donations from Mrs. Ross, whose checks were never cashed.
"They flipped out big time," George said of the reaction. "The Samaritans never cashed a penny of that praise money, but the money Mrs. Ross gave privately prior to 1993 went missing."
The Samaritans visited O'Malley a short time later. According to an affidavit from Susan Lyman, who sat on the organization's board, O'Malley was told that Plante was bothering the organization and something had to be done. At that time, she stated, O'Malley said he would "take care of" the nun.
Soon after, Plante was locked out of her office and put through a series of psychological exams, where it was ruled that she was sane. Under what she has stated was extreme duress from superiors, Plante resigned her job a short time later.
Since then, there have been a series of lawsuits - a defamation lawsuit against the Samaritans, a wrongful termination lawsuit against the Diocese of Fall River and finally, a malpractice lawsuit against Plante's first attorney, Robert George, for negligence.
Friends of Sister Plante chapters were formed in Winchester, Medford, Malden, Stoneham, Fall River and New Bedford by those who believed the nun had been wrongfully let go.
After a 10-year pursuit for justice and to have her name cleared, Plante has settled with Robert George for an undisclosed amount. The Friends are still seeking to have her name cleared by asking O'Malley - whom George still believes knew of the affair between Elaine Vanderbilt and a priest he is still protecting - to make a statement about her case.
After years of trying to keep the scandal quiet, George said it was time to come clean and stop trying to protect the Rosses. She added the underlying story behind the case, now that it's over, has to come out.
"It was that important to protect that we lied," George said. "Everyone felt that they had to protect the general and his wife. I don't think they're the issue anymore. There was an injustice done against the sister and I feel responsible. I still don't know who knows what, but this case makes people nervous because it's complicated, there are a lot of unknowns and there are still some unanswered questions.
"Right now, I think the most important thing to say is that we deliberately
lied to protect the Rosses," she continued. "And the sister
never knew a thing. She just got caught in the middle of something that
happened a long time ago that someone was trying to cover up."
Bishop Accountability © 2003