Diocese Must 'Come Clean'

By Bea O'Quinn Dewberry
Republican [Springfield MA]
February 14, 2004

SPRINGFIELD - The newly-elected leader of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield said yesterday the church must "come clean," admitting that an "old boy network" years ago protected priests suspected of sexual abuse.

Monsignor Richard S. Sniezyk, who will lead the diocese until a bishop is appointed by the Vatican, said church leaders and members are shaken by an allegation this week that outgoing Bishop Thomas L. Dupre molested two boys more than 20 years ago when he was a parish priest. Dupre resigned Wednesday, citing health reasons.

In referring to the ongoing sex abuse crisis in the church, Sniezyk said church officials must acknowledge a culture that protected abusive priests existed years ago.

"We have to come clean," said Sniezyk, recalling how as a young priest he heard rumors of "cliques of priests" who molested young churchgoers, yet were protected by church and legal officials. Sniezyk, who was ordained in 1962, said he never witnessed any abuse.

"I think truly an old boy network existed. We have to admit that no one did anything with it in those days," Sniezyk said, adding that priests are now being held accountable.

Sniezyk, who was elected administrator yesterday by an eight-member board of diocesan consultors, will oversee the day-to-day operations of the diocese until a bishop is named by the pope, which could take up to a year.

Sniezyk has served in a number of positions in the diocese, including vicar general, and had been appointed monsignor in 1998. The diocese, which includes about 270,000 Catholics in the state's four western counties, does not have an auxiliary bishop.

Sniezyk said neither he nor any others at the diocese had spoken to Dupre since the bishop checked himself into a medical facility Tuesday after receiving a list of questions from The Republican regarding the allegation. Dupre, who has reported having heart problems, cited his health as the reason for his resignation.

The allegation was made by a longtime worker in a Catholic school in the diocese, who said her son was abused by Dupre starting in his freshman year in high school and that his best friend was abused beginning when he was a preteen. She said the alleged abuse started in the 1970s and lasted into the 1980s.

The woman said she first approached Dupre with the allegation last year.

Sniezyk said he will give Dupre a week to address the matter before attempting to contact him.

Sniezyk said Boston Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley was "shocked" about the allegation when the two spoke yesterday morning.

"He has offered to do whatever he can to help," Sniezyk said.

According to Sniezyk, O'Malley said he was unaware of the allegation until it was reported this week by The Republican. O'Malley could not be reached for comment.

The Rev. James J. Scahill of St. Michael's parish in East Longmeadow, a critic of Dupre's handling of the clergy sexual abuse issue, said he told state Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly of the allegation in November and attempted to tell the archbishop. Scahill provided a phone record of his call to O'Malley.

Scahill left an urgent message for O'Malley to call him, but did not specify that it was about a sexual abuse allegation against the bishop. O'Malley never returned the call, according to Scahill.

A secretary of O'Malley's said the archdiocese had no records of Scahill's telephone call.

Roderick MacLeish, a Boston lawyer who has handled hundreds of abuse cases in the Boston Archdiocese and has been retained by the two alleged victims, said Sniezyk's comments were encouraging, but did not go far enough. He also questioned whether the diocese had prior knowledge of the allegation before the bishop's resignation.

MacLeish said he will seek full disclosure of all diocesan records regarding Dupre and the allegation. He will contact diocesan lawyers to request that all records be preserved. Neither of his clients in this case have tried to file criminal charges or file a lawsuit.

"The best antiseptic to the type of cover-up that existed in the Springfield Diocese is disclosure, the truth. To that end, we're looking for acknowledgment to the veracity of the allegations made to Bishop Dupre," MacLeish said.

Sniezyk said the diocese will cooperate with any legal investigation and has begun an internal one. Sniezyk said he was questioned by Hampden County District Attorney William M. Bennett yesterday. The district attorney is investigating the allegation and will determine whether any criminal charges should be filed.

Sniezyk said the next step for the church is a healing process. He invited clergy and laity to offer ideas on how to move forward. A memo will be sent to priests to read at weekend Masses.

A candlelight vespers service of prayer will be held Wednesday at 7 p.m. at St. Michael's Cathedral, 260 State St., Springfield.


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