|Ex-Lyman Priest Leaves Bitter Legacy
By Ann Fisher
January 7, 2009
LYMAN (Jan 7, 2009): Parishioners who knew the Rev. Thomas Lee well when he was the priest at St. Philip Parish in Lyman remember him as a dedicated servant of God who celebrated Mass every day, never took a vacation, avoided close relationships and enjoyed the company of his cat.
But more than five years after an investigation was opened into allegations of sex abuse, others are still pointing fingers at Lee, claiming he had multiple victims in both Boothbay Harbor and Lyman.
St. Philip parishioners Elaine Lariviere and Gerry Alexandre said they are outraged that Bishop Richard Malone is appealing to the Vatican a ruling that accusations of sexual abuse against Lee are unproven.
"I can't for the life of me figure out why he (the bishop) did what he did," said Alexandre. "The lawyers went through the whole case with a fine-toothed comb and the bishop overturned it."
The whole congregation "was very upset" at the recent news, said Alexandre, and parishioners are "100 percent standing behind him."
At issue are charges of sexual abuse of a minor against Lee. According to Sue Bernard, communications director of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, all the complaints received by the Diocese originated from Lee's time as parish priest in Boothbay Harbor, which ended 23 years ago. Lee's last assignment was in St. Philip Parish, from 1985-2003.
According to Bernard, Lee, now 81, was removed from the ministry five years ago by then-Bishop Joseph Gerry when the investigation was reopened. Claims against him were initially made in 2002 but, said Bernard, were not substantiated. Lee has not had a ministry since 2003, said Bernard.
When asked about the number of victims involved, Bernard would only say it was "more than two," adding that she is not privy such specific information about the investigation.
But victims' rights advocates are upset at what they see as subterfuge and lying by omission by Bernard.
Paul Kendrick of Freeport, a co-founder of Maine Voice of the Faithful, wrote Bernard Jan. 3: "By not telling the entire truth about the number of allegations the diocese has received against Fr. Thomas Lee, you are encouraging the Boothbay Harbor community to continue to believe that Lee is innocent because they believe that the 'more than two' victims who reported their abuse by Lee are lying.
"How many times do you need to be told, Ms. Bernard, that there are victims of Lee who are afraid and ashamed to speak to anyone about their abuse by Lee? Mental health professionals know that the secrets a child sex abuse victim keeps are toxic to their mental and physical health."
Marie Tupper of Boothbay Harbor has widely claimed in the media that her son was only one of several people abused by Lee in both Boothbay Harbor and Lyman. But Bernard emphasized Monday that claims of sexual abuse have only originated in Boothbay Harbor.
"No one has come forward from the Lyman Parish and said, 'I was abused,'" said Bernard.
Tupper was not available for comment. According to Kendrick, "Tupper and her family are overwhelmed by recent events and have asked that their privacy be respected."
Last month, Malone announced a decision to appeal a tribunal's findings that ruled the sexual abuse accusations against Lee were not proven. According to a Dec. 23 news release from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, Lee's was the first case in the Diocese of a priest charged with sexual abuse of minors to be adjudicated by a tribunal.
Malone said previously he did not know how long the Vatican would take to rule on the request for an appeal.
The tribunal, or church court, which has special expertise in the area of church law, acknowledged that Lee's actions, which took place in the early 1980s, were "imprudent."
According to the Diocese, in March 2004, Gerry forwarded the case to the Vatican and requested a trial by a church court. A church court consists of three priests – called judges – from outside the Diocese of Portland, which encompasses the entire state of Maine.
The Vatican authorized the establishment of a tribunal in Portland in 2006 and testimony was presented during 2007. The tribunal informed the bishop of its decision in August 2008. Malone made his request for an appeal in September, saying in the December news release that he was "stunned and disappointed at the outcome of this case and frustrated that the process has taken so long."
Bernard said it took three months for Malone to announce he was appealing the tribunal's decision because Malone was hoping to hear a quick response from the Vatican. After three months, Malone believed he needed to issue a statement, she said.
Members of St. Philip Parish are not taking the news of the appeal well and are rallying around their former priest.
"I was very upset," over the bishop's decision to appeal, said Alexandre, who lives in Lyman.
"It's an outrage," said Lariviere. "He's been exonerated by the Vatican and he (Malone) is saying there has not been enough investigation. They're treating priests differently (from other people accused of sexual misconduct). You're supposed to be innocent until truly proven guilty."
Lariviere has been a member of St. Philip since the church was established in 1973 and served on the Parish Council with Lee almost the entire 18 years he was assigned to St. Philip. She has also been a religious educator and served on the Finance Committee for many years.
"I never, ever knew him to be alone with a child," said Lariviere. "I can't even imagine him doing anything inappropriate."
As far as Lariviere can remember, Lee was not in charge of training altar boys.
What actions the tribunal considered imprudent have not been made clear. The tribunal ruled that allegations against Lee were not proven, but "they were not specific about what they say he did. In the decision they don't give examples," said Bernard, adding that Lee's actions "did not rise to the level of sexual abuse of minors."
Lariviere said Lee wasn't even a "hugger" and she even confronted him once about his reluctance to embrace people.
"I said, 'What the hell's wrong with you?'" Lariviere recalled.
Lee replied that, when he was assigned as the chaplain at a local hospital, he was present when two children died, which greatly affected him.
"From that point on, he decided not to get close to anybody," said Lariviere.
Lariviere said she is "very, very annoyed at Bishop Malone," and is leading an effort to have the bishop speak to the Lyman parishioners in person. Lariviere has tried to contact Malone twice since his announcement, but conceded he may not have gotten back to her because of the holidays.
"I have my doubts" about whether the bishop will come to Lyman and speak to parishioners, said Lariviere, who is also leading a petition drive to urge the bishop to come to St. Philip.
According to Bernard, Malone satisfied church protocol in 2003 when he visited the parish and explained Lee's removal to parishioners.
"Bishop Malone did not go to Lyman to inform the parishioners of his decision to appeal," said Bernard. "Rather, he put the information out to a wider audience through the media and our Web site hoping to inform even more people.
"Now, Bishop Malone is not removing anyone, he is giving an update on a case and, of course, encourages anyone with further information to come forward to civil authorities or our diocesan investigator (Deacon John Brennan)."
Lee, who was ordained in 1953, served in St. Mary's Parish in Bath from 1977-1985 before he was assigned to Lyman. He also served at Our Lady Queen of Peace in Boothbay Harbor, 1971-1985; the Boys' Training Center, Men's Correctional Center, 1955-1971; at St. Martin of Tours in Millinocket, 1953-1955; and, as chaplain at Mercy Hospital and Maine Medical Center in Portland.
Alexandre, who moved to Lyman from Biddeford in 1988, said Lee was "very popular" when he was at St. Philip's. "We never had any problems with him; he was a really nice person."
Lee christened all four of Alexandre's children and Alexandre recalled that his oldest daughter wrote to the priest several years ago and Lee answered her letter.
Lee was known to participate in many of the church's fundraising events, said Alexandre. He attended most of the suppers and made wooden items like signs and birdhouses for the church's yard sales. "He made a lot things for the fairs," said Alexandre.
When Lee left about five years ago he was so well-liked that a big group of church members gave him a going-away party.
"They really loved him," Alexandre said.
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