|Abuse Advocacy Group Wants a Stronger Response from the Church
By Grant Welker
February 22, 2008
Fall River - A national group for people abused by priests has asked Diocese of Fall River Bishop George W. Coleman to visit former parishes of Father Maurice T. Lebel, who was suspended in December for allegedly molesting a minor during his time in the diocese.
The diocese says it has already taken steps recommended by the group, Survivors Network of those Abused By Priests, but SNAP's national director thinks the diocese hasn't done enough.
The response from the diocese was "hardly a sincere, passionate plea for victims to step forward and get help, or for witnesses to call police," said national director David Clohessy Friday. "If the bishop found out that a priest was performing gay marriages, the response would be very different."
SNAP asked Coleman in the e-mail letter to ask any victims or those with knowledge of abuses to come forward. Lebel worked in the Diocese of Fall River for 13 years and began at the Diocese of Portland, Maine, in 1991.
"We have long stressed that the Catholic hierarchy has an affirmative moral obligation to follow Jesus' admonition and aggressively try to find and help the lost and wounded sheep," said the authors, three SNAP leaders based in the Midwest. "Because of Lebel's admissions, we now feel that your duty to find and help other victims is greater than ever."
Last December, the Diocese of Portland put Lebel on paid leave during an investigation into an allegation that he sexually abused a minor while working in the Diocese of Fall River as a counselor in the early 1980s.
SNAP, which tracks church abuse cases around the country, asked Coleman to personally visit each parish where Lebel worked, to use the diocese's Web site to urge victims to seek help from support groups or a therapist and to ask those with knowledge of abuse to contact police.
But the diocese has already taken the steps recommended by SNAP, said diocese spokesman John Kearns. The weekend following Lebel's suspension in December, Coleman sent a letter to parishioners at St. Joseph's in Fall River and St. Mary's in Mansfield explaining the allegations and the investigation, and urging anyone with information to come forward, he said.
The letter also asked the diocese to make announcements on the diocese's Web site and in the diocese newsletter, The Anchor, but the diocese has done that as well, Kearns said. "We, like SNAP, want anyone with information to come forward."
The diocese's office for child protection has received two calls regarding Lebel, and both have been in support of the priest, Kearns said. There have been no calls alleging abuse made to the office.
Lebel was a rector at the Jesuit Community at Bishop Connolly High School starting in 1973. From 1976 to 1986 he worked as a counselor for Catholic Social Services before he was transferred to the Diocese of Portland. During his time with Catholic Social Services, Lebel was stationed at St. Joseph's and St. Mary's but never served at either church.
Clohessy said there is a "long-standing culture of secrecy" in the church, and it won't change "with a couple words" from Coleman. "Church officials themselves acknowledge tens of thousands have been raped, sodomized or fondled by priests," Clohessy said. "If Jesus were here today, it's hard to imagine that he would reach out to them in a press release."
According to the Web site bishopaccountability.org, which sites multiple media sources, 30 priests in the Diocese of Fall River have been publicly accused of abuse. Five were arrested or convicted, including James R. Porter, with more than 100 settled claims.
In the letter to St. Joseph's and St. Mary's parishioners, Coleman said he was "deeply saddened" by the alleged abuse.
"I want to make clear that the Fall River Diocese was not aware of any allegation against Father Lebel until being notified of this one by the Portland Diocese," he said.
The Archdiocese of Boston received a complaint of assault and sexual abuse last March and the Diocese of Portland began its investigation in June after receiving more information. Lebel was suspended until the investigation could be completed. According to the Portland Diocese, the investigation by Massachusetts authorities is nearing its end.
E-mail Grant Welker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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