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  Diocese Reacts to Abuse Accusations after Bishop Dupre's Early Retirement

By Bill Pomerleau
iobserve [Springfield MA]
Downloaded February 13, 2004

SPRINGFIELD The Diocese of Springfield reacted Feb. 12 to accusations of sexual misconduct made against Springfield Bishop Thomas L. Dupre with reports to law enforcement and higher church officials.

Officials of the Diocese of Springfield received word that Pope John Paul II had accepted Bishop Dupre's resignation as Seventh Bishop of Springfield late in the afternoon of Feb. 10. The request for early retirement, which had been made some months earlier, became effective on Feb. 11 at 10 a.m. local time.

A few hours later, The Republican newspaper of Springfield reported in an on-line preview of its Feb. 12 edition that it had ""confronted" the bishop early the previous day "with accusations that he had sexually abused two minor boys three decades ago when he was a priest."

Diocesan spokesman Mark Dupont told The Catholic Observer that he forwarded questions about the accusations from the newspaper to the bishop's office shortly before 10 a.m. on Feb. 10. Dupont said that shortly thereafter, the bishop attended a funeral, had lunch, then attended a regular meeting of the diocesan consultors. He said that he did not know if Bishop Dupre ever saw the written inquiry from The Republican.

The newspaper said that it had first received a tip about the allegations from an anonymous source more than a year ago. It said it had "spent months conducting interviews in an attempt to corroborate the allegations."

The Republican article did not state that it had found corroboration. It said that it had talked to the mother of one of the alleged victims, whom it described as "a longtime diocesan school worker." It added it was not identifying her because her son did not want to press charges.

In a revised story the next morning, the newspaper included several new comments from the woman, whom it reported had "tried unsuccessfully for months to persuade her now adult son to publicly press charges." It said it was not identifying the woman "in accordance with the newspaper's policy of protecting alleged sexual abuse victims."

The Republican said that the two victims, who were best friends in high school, did not want to file suit against the bishop.

According to the Springfield newspaper, the woman wrote Bishop Dupre with her allegations last spring, weeks before the bishop told The Republican that he might retire earlier than the usual episcopal retirement age of 75.

It said that it she was first contacted by the newspaper in December 2002. She later confronted her son with the possibility that he had been abused by the bishop, and the son acknowledged the abuse.

The woman said that the bishop later met with her son at a Sturbridge restaurant, and apologized for the abuse. She also said that she wrote Bishop Dupre a second time last fall "after watching him on television saying he wanted to facilitate a fund to help financially support sexually abusive priests," according to the newspaper.

Bishop Dupre had discussed the fund on an Oct. 8 special edition of the Catholic Communications program "Real to Reel."

The woman also said that then-Father Dupre had "told the boys that he had been tested for AIDS," and "showed them pictures of men dying of AIDS to scare them so they wouldn't have sex with whoever."

AIDS testing was only commonly available in the mid-1980s to most Americans in the mid 1980s, years after the alleged abuse of the boys occurred.

Charges not reported

Msgr. Richard Sniezyk, who is handling the day-to-day affairs of the diocese until the appointment of a diocesan administrator, said late Feb. 11, "I am unaware of any of the allegations raised in the article published on-line this evening.

" I can assure you that if any individual brought forth a complaint against any member of the diocesan community, including the bishop, it would be thoroughly investigated.

" With regard to these matters, no individual has ever come forward to allege that they had been the victim of misconduct by the bishop. When these questions were submitted to me, I did immediately call The Republican newspaper and shared my position, as stated here, with them."

A day later, Msgr. Sniezyk said that the diocese had forwarded all questions posed by The Republican, including the names of individuals cited by its reporter Bill Zajac, to Hampden County District Attorney William Bennett. He also said that he was sending a report on all the facts the diocese knows to Boston Archbishop Sean O'Malley.

Under the provisions of the U.S. bishops' "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young Persons," and its related canonical norms, accusations of sexual abuse against a diocesan bishop are reported to the pope through the metropolitan, or archbishop, in an ecclesiastical province.

Msgr. Sniezyk said that the diocese was "caught between the need to protect the victims' desire for anonymity and the desire to investigate the allegations."

For nearly two years, the diocese has routinely reported allegations of sexual abuse of minors, no matter how old, to law enforcement. Until now, the names of alleged victims have come from the victims themselves, family members or others seeking an investigation of their claims, not from the media.

The two alleged victims have not come forward to the diocese. They also may have refused to speak The Republican, which only quoted one of their mothers in its reporting.

The Republican's article also said that Father James Scahill, an East Longmeadow priest who has been publicly critical of Bishop Dupre's handling of misconduct matters, had reported the alleged abuse last November to Archbishop O'Malley.

The paper quoted Father Scahill as saying the archbishop did not return his urgent call about "the health of the Springfield Church."

Father Christopher Coyne, spokesperson for Archbishop O'Malley, said that the archbishop only learned of allegations against Bishop Dupre very recently.

" The archbishop was definitely not involved in this back in November, "Father Coyne said. He added that there are no letters to the archbishop from Father Scahill in the archdiocesan files.

He said he did not know if Father Scahill telephoned the Boston Chancery. But he added, "Father Scahill as a priest must clearly know the procedures for reporting these matters. If he called, that is not one of (the procedures.)"

Roderick MacLeish, one of the most prominent attorneys involved in misconduct cases in Boston, has been retained by the two alleged victims solely in an effort to maintain their privacy.

He would not discuss with the Observer any of his actions on behalf of his clients. Nor would he discuss if he had any contact with the Boston Archdiocese about Bishop Dupre.

However, he did say, "I've seen nothing from the Archdiocese of Boston that would lead me to believe that ArchbishopO'Malley has not fulfilled his responsibilities as metropolitan archbishop of Boston."

Through Father Coyne, archdiocesan attorney Thomas Hannigan said that he had never received any letter, e-mail or any other form of message about abuse by Bishop Dupre from any party.

Staff not surprised

Bishop Dupre's decision to ask for early retirement did not come as a surprise to clergy and lay leaders of the diocese. He had frequently told advisors in recent months that he did not expect to be in office at age 75.

In an interview last May with The Republican, he admitted that he was considering retiring early because of his health. Other media then erroneously reported that he had already asked the pope for retirement. He corrected those reports last spring, but the continuing physical and psychological stress led him to ask the pope last November for early retirement, according to diocesan spokesperson Dupont.

Dupont is one of several diocesan officials who told the Observer that they knew of the bishop's retirement plans three months ago.

Dupont said Bishop Dupre left the diocese late Feb. 10 for treatment at a medical facility. He declined to give details, citing concern for the bishop's privacy.

However, Msgr. Richard Sniezyk, who had been the diocese's principal vicar-general, did divulge some of Bishop Dupre medical problems.

" He has had a heart arrhythmia, which his doctors have been trying to control with Coumodin," he said, alluding to a medication for an irregular heartbeat.

" His medical condition is under control, and he is not in imminent danger," said Msgr. Sniezyk.

But he added that the bishop's doctor had advised him that if he did not retire from the stress-filled job of bishop of Springfield, he would soon suffer a heart attack or stroke.

Bishop Dupre learned of the pope's acceptance of his retirement late in the afternoon of Feb. 10, when he took a phone call from Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, papal nuncio to the United States, towards the end of the consultors meeting,.according the Msgr. Leo Leclerc, until recently a co-vicar general of the diocese.

The resignation was publicly announced early Feb. 11, in a press statement by Archbishop Montalvo, and on a routine posting on the Vatican's Web site.

At press time, it was not clear if the announcement of the pope's acceptance of the bishop's resignation and the allegations by The Republican and Father Scahill are related.

During the last decade, a number of diocesan bishops have resigned following allegations of sexual misconduct. In nearly every case, the Vatican has announced the resignation of the accused bishop simultaneously with the appointment of his permanent successor, or a diocesan administrator.

When the Vatican announced that Palm Beach, Fla., Bishop Anthony J. O'Connell had resigned in 2002, it also said that the pope had directly appointed diocesan vicar general Father James Murtagh as apostolic administrator.

Similarly, the announcements of the resignations of Atlanta Archbishop Eugene A. Marino in 1990, Santa Rosa, Cal., Bishop G. Patrick Ziemann in 1991, and Santa Fe, N.M., Archbishop Robert Sanchez in 1993, were all coupled with the immediate appointment of a new bishop.

The Diocese of Springfield has been allowed by the Vatican to follow the procedures usually followed when a bishop under age 75 resigns because of ill health, or is transferred to a larger diocese.

Diocesan leadership

Technically, the diocese is now without a leader, although Msgr. Sniezyk is handling the day-to-day administration of the diocese until the board of consultors convenes to elect an interim administrator.

The consultors, a group of nine priests who were Bishop Dupre's principal advisors, were expected to meet Feb. 13.

Under canon law, the group has eight days to elect a priest to be diocesan administrator. Although the consultors can theoretically elect any priest from within or outside the diocese who is 35 years of age and "outstanding in doctrine and prudence," he is likely to be one of the diocese's current administrators.

That priest will govern the diocese until the pope names a new Bishop of Springfield, which may be some months away.

The transition time from one diocesan bishop to another can vary. Generally, the appointment of a new bishop occurs more quickly when the church can foresee that a vacancy will occur in a diocese. This usually occurs when a healthy bishop is known to be approaching the age of 75.

Msgr. Sniezyk told the Observer that the new diocesan administrator will be limited in his authority. For example, since he will not be a bishop, he cannot ordain priests or consecrate holy oils at the annual Chrism Mass.

He is also not allowed to appoint pastors, or close or create parishes.

He can name priests as temporary administrators of vacant parishes.

Msgr. Sniezyk added that many of the diocese's major plans can likely move forward under a diocesan administrator, since Bishop Dupre and his advisors had reached a general determination of what the diocese intends to do.

This would include an effort to settle lawsuits by several alleged victims of sexual abuse by priests, and further plans to build a new Holyoke Catholic High School.

Under canon law, a diocesan administrator cannot "innovate" or begin major new initiatives.

Bishop Dupre's episcopacy

Bishop Dupre, 70, has been a bishop since 1990, when he became the diocese's second auxiliary bishop. He replaced the late Bishop Leo E. O'Neil, who later became the Bishop of Manchester, N.H.

As head of one of the four Latin-rite Catholic dioceses in Massachusetts, Bishop Dupre was often involved in public policy issues in the state.

He joined with the state's other bishops in opposing political efforts to reinstate the death penalty and to legalize physician-assisted suicide.

They also worked together to seek state and federal bans on partial-birth abortions and to call on Catholic voters to keep in mind the "absolute centrality" of life issues when electing public officials.

Following fatal shootings at two Boston abortion clinics in late 1994, he and other bishops of the state called for a moratorium on all clinic protests and prayer vigils until an atmosphere of calm and civil discourse could be restored.

In a joint pastoral letter in 2000, he and the other bishops urged Catholics to be "instruments of mercy, forgiveness and healing" to the 20,000 men and women in Bay State prisons.

This past January, he and the state's other bishops launched a massive, high-profile campaign seeking a state constitutional amendment to protect the traditional definition of marriage in the wake of the decision by the state's Supreme Judicial Court that it is unconstitutional to deny same-sex couples a right to marry.

In the final weeks before his retirement, Bishop Dupre visited a different parish each weekend to preach personally on the sanctity of the marriage of a man and a woman and the importance of upholding the unique status of that relationship in society.

Thomas Ludger Dupre was born Nov. 10, 1933, in South Hadley Falls. He was ordained a priest by Springfield Bishop Christopher J. Weldon in 1959 following studies in Montreal at the Seminary of Philosophy and the Grand Seminary of St. Sulpice. He later did graduate studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington, earning a doctorate in canon law in 1967.

He was diocesan vicar general and had served 13 years as chancellor when he was made auxiliary bishop of Springfield under Bishop Joseph F. Maguire in 1990. He had also been a pastor, served on the diocesan tribunal and worked with Vietnamese refugees in the diocese.

He was administrator of the diocese following the death of Bishop John A. Marshall in July 1994. The following March he was named the Seventh Bishop of Springfield.

In a 1999 pastoral letter, Bishop Dupre urged renewal of Sunday worship as a high priority throughout the diocese. "No act is more central to the life of the Catholic community of faith than the celebration of this meal which Jesus left in his memory," he wrote.

In 2001 he and Bishop Daniel P. Reilly of the neighboring Diocese of Worcester joined with the bishops of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and the New England Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in signing a historic three-faith ecumenical covenant. The covenant committed the churches to a three-year program of spiritual, theological and social ecumenism through dialogue and mutual collaboration.

Like many other dioceses across the country in the past two years, the Springfield Diocese had to deal with the clergy sexual abuse crisis during Bishop Dupre's time as diocesan bishop.

The most notorious case in Springfield was that of convicted child molester Richard R. Lavigne, suspended from all ministry since his 1991 arrest on charges of rape and sexual abuse of children, and the object of more than 30 sexual abuse lawsuits against the diocese. Lavigne is also the only publicly identified suspect in the unsolved 1972 killing of a 13-year-old Daniel Croteau.

On Jan. 20 Bishop Dupre announced that the pope had granted his request and issued a decree laicizing Lavigne.