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  Kennebunk Priest Cleared of Abuse Charge

By Elbert Aull eaull@pressherald.com
Portland Press Herald
February 12, 2006

http://pressherald.mainetoday.com/news/york/060212priest.shtml

A Kennebunk priest was cleared of allegations of sexual misconduct and returned to his parish Saturday, officials with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland said.

The Rev. Laurent Laplante had been on paid administrative leave since early December, after a high school student claimed the priest touched her pants on her knee and inner thigh six years ago.

The diocese did not find enough evidence to conclude the incident occurred, and the investigation yielded no other allegations of misconduct, said Sue Bernard, spokeswoman for the diocese.

Laplante, 74, returned to his position as pastor of St. Martha's parish, which he has held since 1995, and Bishop Richard Malone told parishioners about the results of the investigation at Saturday afternoon Mass, Bernard said.

The diocese told the girl and her family Thursday, Bernard said.

"They were very cooperative through this whole thing. . . . We've worked on this cordially," she said.

Laplante was not allowed to live in the priest's quarters at the parish while he was investigated, Bernard said. The investigation began when the girl came forward late last year, claiming Laplante touched her pants on the knee and inner thigh, according to an earlier statement.

Laplante denied the accusation, but agreed to step aside while church authorities conducted an investigation. The diocese offered the girl counseling, and later turned over its final report to police.

No criminal charges have been filed against Laplante, and the diocese's offer for counseling for the girl still stands, Bernard said.

"If they ask for help, we certainly provide it," she said of anyone who claims to have been sexually abused.

Laplante could not be reached for comment Saturday evening.

Malone explained the decision in a letter to parishioners Saturday. He wrote that an investigator found no witnesses and a lack of evidence of the alleged abuse. Probes into parishes where Laplante previously worked netted no additional complaints of abuse, he wrote.

Malone thanked parishioners for their patience, and urged them to welcome Laplante back into the church community. He wrote that the investigation process is crucial for the church's credibility.

"I know some of you felt that I, as your bishop, acted too quickly to remove (Laplante) from ministry. But that was important in order to conduct the investigation effectively - to allow potential witnesses the greatest freedom to cooperate," Malone wrote.

A victim advocate also urged parishioners to recognize how difficult it can be to step forward and report abuse.

"For a 15-year-old girl to put herself through the agony and stress of making an allegation against a popular priest is a pretty serious event," said Paul Kendrick, co-founder of the Maine chapter of Voice of the Faithful, a church reform and victim advocacy group.

Kendrick took issue with the way the diocese described the alleged sexual misconduct to the public during the investigation, saying that he felt the church downplayed the girl's vulnerability.

Bernard said the only other priest to have stepped down and regained his post after a diocesan investigation was the Rev. Thomas Lee, who voluntarily went on leave in 2002 after an accusation of sexual abuse and returned after investigators were unable to substantiate the claim.

Lee stepped aside again the following year, when new allegations of abuse arose, and later resigned amid more accusations and a lawsuit the diocese settled out of court.

Laplante, a Lewiston native, was ordained in 1957 and has served as pastor of churches in Northeast Harbor, Brunswick, Mexico, Hampden, Old Orchard Beach, Limerick and Biddeford, according to the diocese.

Staff Writer Elbert Aull can be contacted at 324-4888 or at:
eaull@pressherald.com

 
 

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