DA's Donations to Diocese Angers Advocates of Sex Abuse Victims

By Adam Gorlick
Associated Press, carried in Telegram & Gazette [Worcester MA]
May 4, 2004

SPRINGFIELD, Mass.- Worcester County District Attorney John Conte, who is investigating allegations of clergy sexual abuse within the Worcester Diocese, donated $500 to the church last month from his campaign fund.

Although the donations are legal and a long-standing tradition of Conte's, some advocates for sex abuse victims and campaign finance reformers say they are a bad idea.

"It's a definite conflict of interest as far as I'm concerned," said Bryan Smith, coordinator of the Worcester area chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "Conte says he's trying to do a fair investigation, but he's obviously way too comfortable with the diocese."

According to state campaign finance reports, Conte is the only district attorney who contributed to a diocese. Under state law, politicians are allowed to donate to charities from their campaign funds.

"It's not at all uncommon for someone to donate to a charity or religious institution," said Denis Kennedy, a spokesman for the Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

Conte defended his donations, and said he's been contributing to the Bishop's Fund for 35 years. He became district attorney in 1976.

"It's moral, it's legal and it's needed for the poor," Conte said.

His office is currently investigating allegations of sex abuse within the diocese, but Conte would not comment on the cases.

The Bishop's Fund gives money to social and charitable causes. many of which are provided on a non-denominational basis, throughout Worcester County, said Ray Delisle, a spokesman for the diocese. He said the fund raised $4 million last year, and wants to increase that by $100,000 this year.

Peter Sturges, executive director of the state Ethics Commission, refused to comment.

Under the state's conflict of interest laws, public officials must avoid conduct that creates a reasonable impression that any person "can improperly influence or unduly enjoy their official favor, or that they are likely to act (or fail to act) because of kinship, rank, position or undue influence by any party or person."

"There is an appearance that he's taking sides, and that's a problem," said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, which pushes for campaign finance reform laws. "Candidates in law enforcement have a higher burden than in the legislative arena because they're dealing with specific issues and investigations where their objectivity is absolutely critical."

Mary Jean, organizer of the victim advocate group Worcester Voice, said Conte's donations to the diocese are offensive to those who have been abused by priests.

"He's turning a blind eye to the suffering of those people," she said. "It's disrespectful to the people who elect him that he's using his campaign money to give to the church. He needs to cease this behavior."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.