Criminal Investigation Raises New Questions about Effectiveness of Lay Board

By Trudy Tynan
Associated Press, carried in Providence Journal [Springfield MA]
Downloaded March 6, 2004

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) - Prosecutors investigating child molestation claims against retired Springfield Bishop Thomas Dupre say other abuse may have gone unreported during Dupre's nine years as leader of western Massachusetts Catholics.

"Our preliminary investigation indicates that a number of communications to the diocese regarding sexual misconduct by Dupre were concealed and never provided," said Hampden County District Attorney William Bennett.

And Bennett said he is asking a grand jury to look into allegations of a cover up as well.

"Given the nature of the allegations against Bishop Dupre and given the fact that he was essentially in a position to control records and documents regarding sexual misconduct over a period of years, legitimate concerns have been raised as to whether or not evidence of misconduct was properly reported," Bennett said.

On Friday, six state troopers searched the Dupre's apartment in Springfield for at least an hour and a half. They emerged with a box of documents and several large envelopes.

Monsignor Richard Sniezyk, interim administrator of the Springfield Diocese, said investigators obtained a warrant to search the bishop's residence.

"They have to get to the bottom of it," Sniezyk said. "And we are cooperating with them."

The diocese, home to about 262,000 Catholics, was among the first to establish a lay board to investigate allegations against clergy. The inquiry is raising new questions about the effectiveness of such panels.

The panel was set up in 1992 by Dupre's predecessor after a priest, Richard Lavigne, who has since been defrocked, pleaded guilty to molesting two altar boys. The diocese paid out $1.4 million in settlements with 17 men, who claimed they also had been abused by Lavigne.

In what church officials called an additional layer of protection, its eight members are all in professions that require them to personally report any ongoing abuse to authorities.

"I am fairly certain Bishop Dupre was aware of a lot of investigations," said Mark Dupont, a spokesman for the diocese. "But he was totally absent. He had no role to play in it. The (panel's) 800 number didn't exist in his office."

"I never got the feeling he was trying to interfere," said Richard Brown, a Springfield lawyer who has served on the panel for three years and was recently elected its chairman. "He may not have liked our recommendations, but he followed them."

Still, Brown and other church officials have acknowledged problems. They have added an outreach worker and are planning to hire a professional investigator.

"I'm not sure the size and complexity of the problem was completely realized at first," Brown said.

Some who have brought their allegations to the misconduct commission say they have little faith in the process.

Marty Bono, a Chicopee man who says he was molested by a priest in 1971, brought his claim before the commission in April 2001.

He said members of the commission told him to forgive his abuser and never kept him informed on the status of their investigation.

"They need to decommission the commission and start all over again," Bono said. "Dupre hand-picked the puppets that were going to say what he wanted them to say."

Bono eventually took his complaint to a lawyer and is now suing the diocese.

"You do the best you can," Dupont said. "We understood there were shortcomings and immediately set to (creating the commission). The system we created wasn't perfect and we have made corrections."

"Initially we were far too dependent on the volunteer members to do the investigations and that caused too much time to elapse. We are very sorry for that."

"Some have credibility, but more don't," said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a one-time canon lawyer at the Vatican embassy turned victims' advocate, who has reviewed the operations of many lay commissions.

"They have to be independent," he said, suggesting that the members should not be appointed by the bishop.

"They not only have to be fair, but compassionate and considerate not only of the victims, but their families, because they are just as abused in many ways," he said. "And they have to make sure the accused priest has his rights of due process and aren't just dispatched quickly, because a bishop wants the problem to go away."

Dupre, 70, stepped down Feb. 11, citing health reasons. He left immediately for St. Luke Institute, a private Catholic psychiatric hospital in Maryland. His retirement came a day after The Republican newspaper of Springfield confronted Dupre with the allegations.

Neither Dupre or his lawyer, Michael Jennings, have commented on the allegations.

Jennings said Friday he advised the bishop to withhold any comment "until we can see what course this is going to take. We want to see what comes from the grand jury investigation."

The two men, now 39 and 40, who allege Dupre molested them while a parish priest in the 1970s did not report the abuse to the panel, but have since spoken to church investigators and well as prosecutors, according to their lawyer, Roderick MacLeish Jr. The diocese provided Bennett with a copy of its investigation as well as sending it to the Vatican.

"Dupre was in charge of the records relating to sexual abuse and scandal for many years," MacLeish said. "If he didn't turn over documents about himself to the district attorney, did he turn over information on other priests? I don't know."

"We believe that his sexual abuse was known to others within the diocese," MacLeish said. "So to what extent could Bishop Dupre feel free to reveal the allegations about misconduct of others when he himself had also been accused of abuse?"


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