|Church, State Agency Deal with Activities of Former Priest
By Father Bill Pomerleau
June 10, 2010
SPRINGFIELD – Recent activities of a laicized priest who worked for many years at the Massachusetts Department of Social Services (DSS) has raised questions about how “zero tolerance” policies towards individuals credibly accused of sexually abusing a minor can be enforced.
The case of Albert J. Blanchard of Chicopee, who served as an active priest of the Diocese of Springfield from 1966 to 1977, made the news June 6 when Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen told the story of a Chicopee woman who says she had a four-year sexual relationship with then-Father Blanchard at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Agawam.
“I was so young, so naive. I was 15. He was 30. My aunt called him the ‘hippie priest.’ He had long hair, sandals. We thought he was cool,” the woman told Cullen.
The woman, who is maintaining her anonymity in media interviews, had not, by press time, contacted iobserve after a message was left through an intermediary. But key elements of her comments to the Boston Globe columnist have been confirmed by church officials.
As a result of this inquiry, Blanchard was removed last week as a facilitator for Always Our Children, a local support group for parents of gay and lesbian children which meets at Springfield’s Sacred Heart parish. The group was founded in 2006 to serve the goals and objectives of the U.S. bishops’ pastoral statement which carries the same name.
Father Blanchard began his priestly ministry at St. John’s in August 1966. He began his involvement with the then-Agawam teenager in 1971, when she went to him for counseling about problems at home.
She continued what she later realized was an abusive relationship with the priest after 1973, when he was transferred to St. Patrick Church in South Hadley. It ended around 1975, when she was 19 years old.
Two years later, then-Father Blanchard left active ministry on Sept. 1, 1977. He was laicized on June 6, 1980, according to chancery records.
Citing legal counsel, Blanchard declined to discuss his relationship with the woman, or his work history with the state’s child protection agency, in a telephone interview with iobserve. He did confirm that he voluntarily sought laicization and a dispensation from his promise of celibacy so that he could later validly marry in the church.
Blanchard apparently had no further contact with his victim until 1993, when she presented her history to the Springfield Diocese’s then-misconduct commission (now the
Diocesan Review Board). After the commission found her story credible, the diocese, the woman and Blanchard reached a legal agreement.
Under the agreement, the woman received an undisclosed sum of money. Blanchard, who was represented by his own attorney in the settlement negotiations, personally contributed to what diocesan attorney John J. Egan described as “a modest amount.”
Patricia Finn McManamy, director of prevention and victims services for the diocese, told iobserve that, upon reflection, she was slow to realize how Blanchard’s recent involvement in a local support group for the parents of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered children was a violation of diocesan policy. (Al and Kathy Blanchard were earlier participants in Always Our Children.)
The group, which meets monthly at Sacred Heart Church in Springfield, was founded by Ann Franczyk, a nurse practitioner and her husband, Chet, a pediatrician.
Parishioners at Sacred Heart, the Franczyks sought the approval of both Sacred Heart pastor Msgr. George Farland and Springfield Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell before beginning their meetings.
Like the Franczyks, the Blanchards also are parents of a gay child and parishioners of Sacred Heart. At some point, Al Blanchard moved on from being a simple member of the group to being one of its facilitators.
That was a key development, church officials acknowledge, since the diocese’s Policy for the Protection of Children and Youth says that “no individual who has sexually abused a minor will be employed or engaged as a volunteer for the Diocese of Springfield.”
McManamy admitted that some in the diocese, including herself, might have understood that individuals with troubled pasts can serve as church volunteers if they have no direct contact with minors.
She also now admits that a feature article in The Reminder newspaper describing how “Ryan,” a 15-year-old transgendered youth from Andover, Mass., spoke to the local group in November 2009, and a calendar notice promoting the meeting in the Oct. 30 edition of The Catholic Observer, should have been warning signs.
“I blew it. I guess I was so focused on the DSS issue, I never thought about how he (Blanchard) was violating our policy,” McManamy told ioberve.
McManamy was referring to her initial contact with the Chicopee woman, who seemed most concerned that Blanchard could have access to minors as a licensed social worker.
Blanchard said that after leaving active ministry, he moved to eastern Massachusetts Boston, where he briefly worked with “street kids” in the western suburbs of Boston. He later worked with the elderly in southern Worcester County, and gained certification as a social worker.
In 1982, he heard of an opening at DSS, and applied for a job. “I think it helped that the agency was headed by another ex-priest,” Blanchard told iobserve.
Blanchard said that he retired from the state agency in 2002, and implied that his retirement was connected to concerns about his history.
Peter Pollard, the local coordinator for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), worked for DSS from 1990 to 2004.
“I knew Al Blanchard from the regional office. I also knew that at some point, he no longer worked directly with children, but was given an office job. I can’t directly say what might have happened. I hope they agency can tell us,” Pollard said.
Egan said that when the victim approached the diocese in 1993, the diocese immediately notified the district attorney’s office and DSS. “I understand that the agency did some kind of investigation,” he said.
A spokesman for the state agency, now known as the Department of Children and Families, did not immediately return a call seeking comment on Blanchard’s employment.
“The lady wanted his social worker’s license taken away. That’s not in my power, but I tried to help her by telling her how she could file a report with the state licensing board,” said McManamy, herself a licensed social worker.
“I was able to find out that, while his license is still valid, he isn’t apparently employed as a social worker now,” she added.
Msgr. Farland also expressed contrition over Blanchard’s involvement in church ministry. “I admit that he taught religious education here, and was a Eucharistic minister,” Msgr. Farland said. “I had heard that there had been some kind of problem with him in the past, but he was cleared by the state. I always thought his problem was with adult women, not girls.
“Something fell through the cracks,” Msgr. Farland said.
Pollard said that under its current policies, the diocese has made it difficult for individual pastors to know if an individual volunteering in a parish has a troubled past. He noted that the diocese’s mandatory background checks only reveal criminal convictions, while the code of conduct which church ministers sign relies on the truthfulness of the prospective employee or volunteer.
SNAP has asked that the diocese publish a list of all credibly accused priests who have served the local church.
“Are there others like Blanchard out there we don’t know about?” Pollard asked.
Diocesan spokesman Mark Dupont said that Springfield Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell is planning to release a list of credibly accused clergy who are still alive. But Dupont said the diocese remains reluctant to publish the names of dead clergy who cannot defend themselves against false accusations.
Dupont added that the diocese has yet to decide if it can legally publicize the history of former priests and other laypersons no longer under church supervision.
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