Dianne Williamson: Some lessons still to learn for church
By Dianne Williamson
Telegram & Gazette
January 27, 2018
For 25 years, Peter Inzerillo has been quietly directing a community chorale of “high-quality music” in Leominster. In the mid-’90s, however, he was singing a different tune.
Back then, as the Rev. Peter, he was busy denying claims that he sexually abused a 19-year-old teen who had turned to him for help after being abused by another priest. Those denials would ring false, however, when in 1999 the diocese paid Inzerillo’s accuser $300,000, one of the largest settlements reached by the Diocese of Worcester, which then promptly reassigned the disgraced priest to another parish.
When I learned last week that Peter Inzerillo had finally been defrocked, more than two decades after his alleged acts opened a window to the church’s systemic failure to shield children from abuse, I was flooded by memories of a church that for decades had covered up the grave crimes committed by its priests. I was also filled with admiration for the brave people who confronted the church years before it was acceptable to do so, years before The Boston Globe’s Spotlight series blew the scandal wide open, back when victims were at the mercy of strident church lawyers and doubtful, defensive Catholics.
One of those victims was Ed Gagne, a soft-spoken Spencer man who aspired to the priesthood himself when he met Peter Inzerillo, then the diocese’s vocational director. He told the priest he had been abused six years earlier by another priest, and Inzerillo offered to counsel him.
Instead, Gagne would later claim in his lawsuit that Inzerillo blamed him for the earlier abuse, asked him if he was gay and then sexually assaulted him. After he sued, Gagne received death threats, condemnation and suggestions that he enjoyed the abuse because he was gay. The diocesan lawyer was so abusive in depositions that he was barred by a judge from involvement in the Gagne case.
After Gagne was awarded the settlement, the diocese reassigned Inzerillo to St. Leo’s Church in Leominster. It wasn’t until three years later that then-Bishop Daniel P. Reilly removed Rev. Inzerillo from ministry “for the good of the parish.” He has headed the chorale since 1992 and was reportedly living above a flower shop where he worked.
Last week, a diocesan spokesman said Inzerillo, 74, was still receiving a stipend and health insurance from the diocese until he was recently defrocked, or laicized. He said he didn’t know the amount of the stipend. A phone number listed to Inzerillo was disconnected. To my knowledge, he has never commented publicly on Gagne’s accusations. Gagne, for his part, was once vocal about the case but declined to comment last week.
But his lawsuit spoke volumes. Filed eight years before the Globe’s Spotlight series, it was among the first to shed light on the church’s failure to protect children and its habit of shuttling priests accused of abuse from parish to parish. In a stunning deposition filled with contradictions and discrepancies, then-Bishop Timothy J. Harrington acknowledged that he had received some 30 complaints of sexual abuse involving 20 priests, yet only removed them from active ministry when they admitted their crimes or their cases became public.
Asked by Gagne’s lawyer if he discouraged victims or their families from speaking out, Harrington replied, “I might have said to some people, ‘Listen, you can do as you please, but usually in matters like this everybody gets hurt. It’s like a divorce, everybody gets hurt.’ ”
Times have certainly changed, but some argue they haven’t changed enough. Barbara Dorris, executive director of The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said she knows of priests in prison who haven’t been defrocked and clergy still assigned to parishes despite credible allegations of abuse. She said some believe that the church is slow to defrock priests for fear of “losing control” of their silence.
“As long as they’re not defrocked, they get paid and are more willing to play by the rules and keep quiet about past abuse and what the church knew,” Dorris said. She also said that the church still has lessons to learn, and it’s important to remind people of its past complicity.
“The church has learned to say the right things but hasn’t learned to do the right things,” she said. “I think they’ve learned a little, but it’s been forced on them by the media, civil authorities and survivors. The change has come from outside of the church, not from within.”
In a prepared statement last week after one of the diocese’s most notorious priests had finally been defrocked, Bishop Robert J. McManus expressed “my fervent prayer that Christ may bring healing and hope” to anyone abused by a priest. It’s a nice sentiment.
But while God may provide solace to some, it falls on his earthly messengers to stay vigilant and learn from past mistakes. Only then can the healing and hope commence.