Priests May Be Shielded by Law
Authorities May Not Be Able to Force Clergy Members to Reveal Discussions with Paul R. Nolin, Unless the Accused Killer Consents.
By Amanda Lehmert
Cape Cod Times [Falmouth MA]
Downloaded October 16, 2003
If investigators want to find out what two local priests know about the murder of East Falmouth resident Jonathan Wessner, the accused killer will have to give his permission first.
Massachusetts state law allows priests to keep confidential what is told to them by someone in confession or seeking spiritual guidance.
The Revs. Bernard Kelly, 70, and Donald Turlick, 68, were friends of Paul R. Nolin, 39, a convicted child rapist who is accused of the kidnapping and murder of Wessner, 20.
The three met socially and sometimes went out to dinner together, said Kathleen English, a Falmouth attorney who is advising Turlick.
Nolin's attorney says investigators are trying to get Kelly to violate his penitent privilege with Nolin to shed more light on what led up to Wessner's murder and what happened after the man was killed.
Last week, Kelly was suspended from St. Joseph's in Woods Hole after he apparently was uncooperative with investigators. Fall River Bishop George Coleman urged Kelly to cooperate with the police and also put Kelly on administrative leave pending the completion of the murder investigation. Kelly had been the pastor at St. Joseph's since 1997.
Sources say Kelly was involved in a sexual relationship with Nolin, who worked as a handyman at the church in addition to being an apprentice plumber. Nolin's attorney said his client and Kelly were just friends.
But conversations between Nolin and the two priests as friends in social situations may not be privileged because Nolin may not have been seeking spiritual guidance, said Daniel Shea, a Worcester attorney who represents several alleged clergy abuse victims.
Wessner's body was found buried under rocks on a Woods Hole beach Oct. 3. Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe confirmed yesterday that Wessner was killed at a location other than where his body was found.
Wessner's blood-stained Jeep was found in the parking lot of a Brockton supermarket a few days after he disappeared. He was last seen leaving a party with Nolin in the early hours of Sept. 20.
It is still unclear who drove the Jeep to Brockton or, if Nolin did, how he got back to Falmouth. Law enforcement officials will not answer any questions about the investigation.
During his arraignment in Falmouth District Court, Nolin pleaded innocent to charges that he kidnapped and murdered Wessner and he is being held without bail. He is expected to be indicted by a grand jury in the next two weeks.
Kelly was interviewed by investigators after Wessner disappeared after attending a party at Nolin's home at 17 Nye Road, Falmouth. The priest was interviewed again after Wessner's body was found.
But Shea said state law says priests shall not be allowed to disclose a confession made to him in his professional character.
For the Catholic church, that privilege covers what is told to a priest in confession, Shea said.
State law goes on to cover more general communications, saying that a priest - or a rabbi or other minister - cannot testify if a parishioner has told him something when "seeking religious or spiritual advice or comfort."
That part of the law is open to more interpretation, Shea said.
"The privilege is owned by the person who is doing the disclosure. If Nolin asserts the privilege, then the priests can't talk."
Kelly, who owns a home and horse farm in on Route 6A in Cummaquid, could not be reached for comment last night.
"(Father Kelly) knows that privilege exists and he knows he can't divulge any information that was given to him ... in the context of spiritual guidance," said Robert Nolan, Nolin's attorney.
"There is a priest-penitent privilege, and that should not be broken and I think the commonwealth is going to be attempting to do that."
Nolan said his client was a parishioner at Kelly's church, but other parishioners said they had never seen Nolin at Mass before.
Turlick, a retired priest and psychotherapist, described himself to the Times a few weeks ago as Nolin's mentor. He told the Times that he helped Nolin adjust to society after his release from prison in July 2000. Nolin had served 18 years of a 20-year sentence.
Turlick was a priest assigned to the Bridgeport, Conn., diocese but he got permission to leave parish work there to become a professor at Emmanuel College in Boston in 1974. He also became a psychotherapist that same year. He taught at the college for 20 years.
Nolin was convicted in 1982 of luring a 10-year-old Lowell boy into some woods where he tied the boy's hands behind his back and raped him three times.
When Nolin got out of prison, he moved to Mashpee and rented a basement apartment in Turlick's home. Nolin moved to Falmouth a year ago.
While Nolin was in the Massachusetts Treatment Center for the sexually dangerous in Bridgewater, Turlick was one of his therapists in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Turlick testified at the hearing at which a judge decided Nolin was no longer sexually dangerous and released him from the center. Nolin was then transferred to the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk to serve the remainder of his sentence.
English, the lawyer who spoke on Turlick's behalf, said Turlick only testified about how cooperative Nolin was while he was Turlick's patient.
Turlick could not be reached for comment yesterday. English said Tuesday that he did not want to talk to reporters and that he left the Cape.
Kelly and Turlick have known each other since they went to seminary together at St. Mary's in Baltimore, Md., in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
In 2002, Nolin's birthday party was held at Kelly's Cummaquid home, English said.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.