Sex abuse claim against late Springfield bishop Christopher Weldon demonstrates challenge victims face
By Anne-Gerard Flynn
June 16, 2019
|The Most Rev. Christopher J. Weldon, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield from 1950 until 1977.|
Springfield Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski will meet Thursday with an alleged clergy sex abuse victim, who says he told a diocesan Review Board a year ago that he had been sexually abused decades ago by the late Bishop Christopher J. Weldon.
The Review Board has disputed that his June 2018 testimony included allegations of direct abuse by Weldon, though three individuals present say he named Weldon.
Rozanski, who was in Baltimore this past week for a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting where clergy abuse was among the topics discussed, was said to have found the allegations involving Weldon “deeply troubling.”
It is unclear what resolution will come from the meeting between the alleged victim and Rozanski, but the situation highlights the difficulty for those coming forth with accusations of sexual misconduct involving a deceased bishop.
An area of legal conflict in the Springfield diocese has been how far back it was aware of clergy sex abuse. This has been an issue particularly associated with Weldon’s 27 years as bishop and any allegations made against clergy at that time. There are concerns as well that pertinent files kept by Weldon may have been destroyed after his death in 1982 by the executor of his will — who had himself faced claims of sexual abuse.
E.J. Fleming’s book “Death of an Altar Boy” makes the argument that Weldon knew early on from detectives that then diocesan priest Richard Lavigne — who pleaded guilty in 1992 to molesting two boys and was later removed from the clerical state by the Vatican — was a suspect in the unsolved 1972 murder of 13-year-old altar boy Danny Croteau.
The diocese has argued it was not aware until 1986 of an accusation of abuse against Lavigne, who was the subject of at least 37 claims of abuse of a minor, and continued to minister as a priest until 1991.
In 2007, a legal battle started between the diocese and several insurance companies who were refusing to reimburse the diocese for settlements paid in clergy sex abuse lawsuits, arguing that the diocese had destroyed related records for three decades.
The diocese denied the charges and subsequently turned over a box of documents to insurers.
Insurers in arguing their case had cited a letter from a diocesan priest to then Bishop Thomas Dupre that was reported as saying in part, “as we have long suspected, Bishop Weldon’s files were all destroyed by Monsignor David Welch since Bishop Weldon unwisely kept those files apart from the vault in the Chancery."
The June 2018 Review Board hearing was not the first time Weldon had been linked to abuse, though the diocese said it is the first-time that testimony presented before the board involved the name of the diocese’s fourth bishop, who served from 1950 through 1977.
In 2005, William E. Burnett, a 1959 Cathedral High school graduate filed an unsuccessful civil suit against both the Springfield and Worcester dioceses for conspiring to conceal “criminal acts of sexual abuse which were committed by individuals whom it recruited, hired, trained, supervised and retained as clergymen in their respective dioceses.”
The six priests named as “perpetrators” in the suit included Weldon whom Burnett, born in 1941, alleged abused him approximately three times between the ages of 10 and 16 at St. Michael’s Cathedral. The suit alleged that the abuse was witnessed by Bernard L. Doheny and George A. Berthiaume, both priests in the Springfield diocese, and also alleged that Weldon witnessed Burnett being abused by Doheny.
Doheny, whom Burnett alleged in the suit was his first abuser at around age 10, died in 1965, Berthiaume in 1985.
The suit sought compensation for the “bodily harm, humiliation, severe emotional distress, and permanent psychological damages” allegedly suffered by Burnett, who is serving a 60-year sentence in a Texas prison for the murder of a retired businessman there in 1989.
Both dioceses maintained the suit, which detailed where the alleged sexual abuse occurred by the named priests and what it involved, to have “no basis of credibility.”
It has been estimated that dioceses and religious orders in the United States have paid more than $3 billion to settle lawsuits brought by alleged victims of clergy sex abuse.
It has been such lawsuits, coupled with investigations by the media, that exposed the abuse of minors by pedophile priests in the Catholic Church going back decades.
The late Thomas Dupre resigned as Springfield bishop in February 2004, a day after The Republican confronted him with allegations that he had abused two young men, who had yet to come forward and later filed lawsuits.
Dupre’s resignation lead to further investigations by then Hampden County District Attorney William Bennett. Dupre became the first Roman Catholic bishop indicted on a sexual abuse claim in the United States.
Decisions by Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney, a Springfield native and product of Catholic education, were key in exposing the extent of the cover-up by church officials in the Boston archdiocese and resulting in the resignation of the late Cardinal Bernard Law as archbishop there in 2002.
Sweeney ordered the public release of 10,000 documents from 84 lawsuits against former Boston archdiocesan priest and convicted child molester John Geoghan on a motion from the Boston Globe in November 2001, and a year later ordered the release of 11,000 pages of documentations related to accusations of abuse against numerous priests in the archdiocese.
The Springfield diocese turned over some 80,000 pages of documentation to Bennett after Dupre’s resignation, and said that those pages included what it referred to as “privileged” files, that is, files containing personal matters including letters of complaint.
A grand jury investigation indicted Dupre on child sexual assault charges in September 2004, but not on obstruction of justice and conspiracy charges.
Dupre, who was removed from public ministry by the Vatican in 2004, was never charged with two counts of child rape because Bennett said they fell outside the statute of limitations. Dupre died in 2016.
The Springfield Diocese’s defense strategies in fighting suits brought by victims have include arguing First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion gives church officials immunity from civil suits as well as a former state law that provided charitable immunity until 1971.
In seeking dismissal of five clergy abuse suits in 2003 before Sweeney on charitable immunity grounds, the diocese issued a statement saying that it “strongly prefers to resolve all claims amicably on a case-by-case basis, however, if amicable settlements are not reached, our legal advisors are obligated to preserve all valid defenses.”
Accusations the alleged victim who is to meet this month with Rozanski made to the board and its investigator against two priests who served at St. Anne’s Parish in Chicopee were found credible but the diocese has said the name of the one not already on its published list of credibly accused clergy will not be added because the priest is deceased and cannot defend himself
A report published by the diocese in February shows it has paid out nearly $15 million in settling 147 claims since 1992.
Some $8.5 million came from insurance carriers with the remainder coming from diocesan self-insurance reserves, according to the report.