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  Accused Clergy Had Influential Posts

By Stephanie Barry sbarry@repub.com
[Springfield MA] Republican
March 1, 2004

More than a third of accused priests held powerful positions in the church at a time when incidents of sexual abuse were at their highest.

Their resumes are impressive, revealing nothing of the alleged secrets that would eventually drive them from public life as priests.

The vast majority of 14 local priests recently accused of sexual misconduct held positions of considerable power in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, some ascending steadily through the ranks while they allegedly engaged in sexual misdeeds with minors.

Among them were the recently retired bishop, a secretary to two bishops, the executor of one bishop's estate and the head of diocesan schools. Another was the chief recruiter of young seminarians, a man who was later entrusted with diocesan records.

The exceptional proximity to power - and documents that may show some clerics abused it - have triggered questions about whether personnel files and other paperwork that may have revealed a pattern of abuse were destroyed or mishandled.

And, while their numbers represent just a fraction of the 120 priests in the diocese, the accused provide evidence that a powerful "cabal" of abusers had free reign to prey on victims over decades, according to lawyers for alleged victims.

"One of the things we've been trying to do is connect the dots between the predatory priests and their supervisors. We have noted a number of interesting relationships or coincidences that need to be more fully investigated," said Greenfield lawyer John J. Stobierski, who represents 38 alleged victims of clergy abuse.

Boston lawyer Roderick MacLeish Jr., who represents two men who have accused former Bishop Thomas L. Dupre of sexually abusing them during the 1970s and 1980s (though neither has filed suit), has questioned why there is no evidence of at least three written complaints against the ex-prelate, who fled his post two weeks ago hours after The Republican confronted him with the allegations. Hampden County District Attorney William M. Bennett also said recently that he questions whether all records of clergy abuse allegations were properly preserved.

Msgr. Richard S. Sniezyk, interim diocesan administrator, said in a statement that the church had no prior knowledge of abusive behavior among the clergy subject to The Republican's review, save for two who were removed from parish posts in the 1990s and placed in "special ministry" positions.

"If the assumption is we knew they were problematic when they were given their position, well that is not true," Sniezyk said. "Even taking into account these individuals, there are still many, many others who have served in similar positions and have not been guilty of abuse."

While some of the 14 priests have been accused posthumously of abuse and another handful deny allegations against them, the number of once-powerful priests accused represents more than one-third of the total number of priests the diocese itself reports as abusers over a half-century. The diocese recently released a report stating 22 priests locally abused 70 children and teen-agers.

Part of a national study, the report was released 10 days after Dupre abruptly retired and disappeared from public view. He has since been spotted by a reporter for The Republican at St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., a center which treats clergy for a variety of mental and addictive disorders, including pedophilia.

Though Sniezyk and diocesan officials before him have maintained that most predatory priests' sexual appetites were unknown to them before the most recent wave of accusations, victims' advocates are skeptical.

"Do I buy that? Not for a second," said Peter C. Pollard, head of the recently formed Springfield chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, better known as SNAP. "I've asked priests why other priests stayed silent. The only answer that makes sense is that they were protecting themselves."

Pollard added that he felt Sniezyk's comments following a Mass last week, when he indicated that some priests at one time found it acceptable to have sex with young men, was a moment of "tragic frankness."

Sniezyk has since apologized for making the comments, saying he never meant to suggest that sexual misconduct of any kind is acceptable.

Aside from Dupre, who has not responded to the allegations but has retained a criminal defense lawyer, seven other accused priests held positions of considerable clout. While most have been ousted from ministry or have died, among them are:

- The late Rev. E. Karl Huller, former Cathedral High School athletics director who became diocesan superintendent of schools in the 1970s. Two men have sued the diocese, alleging Huller abused them while they were Cathedral students in the 1960s. Huller died in 1997 while he was financial vicar for the diocese.

-The Rev. Richard F. Meehan, one-time director of vocations for the diocese, responsible for recruiting and overseeing seminarians. Meehan was removed by Dupre from all public ministry in 2002 after at least two credible allegations of sexual misconduct. Dupre in the early 1990s took Meehan out of full-time public ministry to organize the local church's archives.

- The Rev. Francis P. Lavelle, assistant to two bishops and pastor of a prestigious church in Longmeadow at the time he resigned following two allegations of sexual abuse. After a third accusation, Dupre removed him from public ministry just weeks before he resigned himself.

- The Rev. Edward M. Kennedy, former head of the Spanish Apostolate who attended canon law school after a lawsuit accusing him of sexual misconduct with a young man in the 1990s. He was later appointed to the diocese's marriage tribunal, which grants or rejects petitions for annulments. Kennedy was removed from all ministry in 2002; four brothers from Greenfield last year lodged additional allegations that Kennedy and other priests abused the boys when they were minors.

- The late Msgr. David P. Welch, 36-year editor of the diocese's Catholic newspaper and executor of the estate of deceased Bishop Christopher J. Weldon, who died in 1982. Welch died four years later, but a 65-year-old Florida man filed a complaint with the local diocese, saying Welch abused him when he was a minor.

The complaint against Welch is particularly troubling to critics of the local church's leadership. As overseer of Weldon's estate, he was privy to personal and personnel files that may have included allegations of priest abuse. One local priest, the Rev. James Scahill, caused a furor when he said Dupre told a gathering of parish priests that files possibly containing evidence of abuse allegations were destroyed after Weldon died. Dupre later denied making the statement in a sworn deposition.

Weldon was bishop from the early 1950s to the 1970s. The clergy abuse report released earlier this month by the diocese notes that substantiated incidents of molestation peaked in the 1960s and 1970s.

Yet Dupre has said it wasn't until 1986 that the diocese received its first complaint against a priest who was accused of the bulk of child molestation crimes. Richard R. Lavigne, a convicted child molester, was recently defrocked after victims leveled 35 abuse complaints and Dupre appealed to the Vatican to have him laicized. Dupre has been criticized for dragging his feet on seeking to defrock Lavigne, who was also the only suspect in the 1972 murder of an altar boy.

Other current or former influential priests accused of sexual misdeeds include other legal experts within the diocese and members of the annulment committee.

Diocesan officials said the ability of some accused priests to reach the upper ranks of the hierarchy may be partly rooted in the shortage of priests over the past two decades, prompting a frequent shuffling of responsibilities. They also concede that the promotions may have something to do with the suspected abusers' power to deceive.

"The ability of these men to advance, was seemingly no better or worse than other priests, and only demonstrates how carefully many abusers compartmentalized their lives, keeping their terrible actions clearly out of plain sight," Sniezyk said.

History of clergy sexual abuse in Western Mass.

Alleged abusers in this diocese were not restricted to priests in far-flung parishes. The vast majority of 14 local clergy recently accused of sexual misconduct held influential posts in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, some ascending steadily through the ranks - in Bishop Thomas L. Dupre's case, all the way to the top - while they allegedly engaged in sexual misdeeds with minors.

THE ACCUSED: The former Bishop Thomas L. Dupre.

THE ACCUSATION: confronted two weeks ago with questions regarding alleged abuse of two boys while he was a parish priest over 20 years ago. The men have since come forward anonymously to details the alleged abuse.

THE OUTCOME: A criminal investigation is ongoing and the alleged victims have retained a lawyer. Dupre, who also has hired a criminal defense lawyer, was the diocese's highest-ranking priest until his abrupt retirement following the newspaper's questions.

THE ACCUSED: The late Rev. E. Karl Huller, former Cathedral High School athletics director who became diocesan superintendent of schools in the 1970s.

THE ACCUSATION: Two men in 2002 alleged Huller abused them while they were Cathedral students in the 1960s.

THE OUTCOME: The men are suing the diocese, alleging complicity and failure to supervise its priests after Huller died in 1997 while he was financial vicar for the diocese.

THE ACCUSED: The Rev. Richard F. Meehan, one-time director of vocations for the diocese, responsible for recruiting and overseeing seminarians.

THE ACCUSATION: At least two men have accused Meehan of sexual misconduct, thought their ages and other details are unclear. He faces a civil lawsuit lodged by a 48-year-old West Springfield who said Meehan abused him when he was a teen-ager.

THE OUTCOME: Meehan was removed by Dupre from all public ministry in 2002. Dupre in the early 1990s took Meehan out of full-time public ministry to organize the local church's archives and oversee its documents.

THE ACCUSED: The Rev. Francis P. Lavelle, assistant to two bishops (Christopher Weldon and Joseph Maguire) during the 1970s, and pastor of a prestigious church in Longmeadow at the time he resigned in 2002.

THE ACCUSATIONS: A 45-year-old Pennsylvania truck driver in 2002 alleged Lavelle raped him several times in 1972 when he was 15. A New York City lawyer lodged a similar complaint the same day, saying Lavelle in 1980 sexually assaulted him when he was 16. A third accusation by four Greenfield brothers surfaced last year.

THE OUTCOME: Lavelle resigned as pastor of a Longmeadow parish in 2002, after the first accusations arose. He was removed from public ministry just days after Dupre retired.

THE ACCUSED: The late Msgr. David P. Welch, 36-year editor of the diocese's Catholic newspaper and executor of the estate of deceased Bishop Christopher J. Weldon

THE ACCUSATIONS: A 65-year-old Florida man said Welch abused him over 50 years ago.

THE OUTCOME: Welch died in 1982; the alleged victim is suing the diocese.

THE ACCUSED: The Rev. Edward M. Kennedy, former head of the Spanish Apostolate; attended canon law school after a lawsuit accusing him of sexual misconduct with a young man in the 1990s, was later appointed to the diocese's marriage tribunal, which grants or rejects petitions for annulments.

THE ACCUSATIONS: Kennedy settled a lawsuit with a young man who accused him of sexual misconduct in the early 1990s. Four brothers from Greenfield last year lodged additional allegations Kennedy and other priests.

THE OUTCOME: Kennedy was removed from parish ministry and sent to canon law school in the early 1990s after settling the suit. He remained a fill-in priest and a member of the annulment tribunal until 2002 when he was permanently removed from public ministry.

THE ACCUSED: The Rev. John J. Bonzagni, a canon lawyer and member of the marriage tribunal pursuing a civil law degree. He is still a priest at a Lenox parish.

THE ACCUSATION: Accused in 2003 by a 31-year-old Belchertown woman who said he assaulted her while she was a high school student preparing for her confirmation.

THE OUTCOME: Bonzagni has denied the accusation but faces a civil suit. The diocese said no action by the misconduct commission is pending against the priest.

THE ACCUSED: The Rev. Ronald E. Wamsher, canon lawyer and member of the annulment tribunal.

THE ACCUSATION: Accused in 2003 by four Greenfield brothers who said Wamsher is one of five priests who abused them between 1967 and 1983.

THE OUTCOME: Wamsher, who left a Belchertown parish to attend canon law school in 2002, denied the charges and the diocese has said its misconduct review board did not find against him though he faces a civil suit. He remains on the annulment tribunal.



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