Bishop Weldon Allegation May Prove Test for Bishop Accountablity
By Anne-Gerard Flynn
June 27, 2019
Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski’s recent meeting with a man who says he was sexually abused by the late Bishop Christopher Weldon may test new church guidelines on how to handle claims against a bishop, as well as deliver justice for an alleged victim.
A statement released by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield following the June 20 meeting said that the alleged victim’s remarks had been documented and an initial report filed with the Hampden County District Attorney’s Office. Further, it referenced "the courage it takes any person, including this individual, to share such a traumatic story of abuse.”
The Springfield Diocese noted that Rozanski was “seeking guidance on how this complaint should now be handled in light of the new policies and procedures agreed upon last week by the U.S. bishops but not yet implemented.”
The complaint against Springfield’s fourth bishop could provide a preliminary test of those new procedures. It could end up by being investigated by Cardinal Sean O’Malley who, as bishop of Fall River in the 1990s, was among the first bishops to implement procedures on a diocesan level for handling clergy sex abuse cases.
O’Malley was installed as Boston archbishop at the height of the abuse crisis there in 2003, and has become one of Pope Francis’ top advisers for clergy sex abuse as a result of his handling of the crises in Boston, Fall River and Palm Beach, Florida.
Last year, O’Malley rebuffed the pontiff for disparaging an alleged Chilean victim of clergy sex abuse with whom the pope later met, saying, “Words that convey the message ‘if you cannot prove your claims then you will not be believed’ abandon those who have suffered reprehensible criminal violations of their human dignity and relegate survivors to discredited exile.”
The measures referenced by Rozanski were approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops during its annual spring meeting earlier this month in Baltimore. It addresses how allegations of sexual abuse of a minor against a bishop – or the cover-up of such abuse by a bishop – should be handled.
They include the establishment by next spring of a third-party reporting system to receive such allegations — a response to reporting procedures issued in May by Pope Francis.
Pope Francis’ reforms come in the aftermath of his summit in February that brought together top bishops from around the world with alleged victims-survivors of clergy sex abuse. The U.S. bishops measures are also a follow on their own meeting last fall.
The measures adopted by the U.S. bishops are similar to what Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the conference, had proposed and the planned centralized independent intake system for accusations of sexual misconduct against a bishop would feed such accusations to “metropolitan” authorities — higher ranking prelates like O’Malley, who oversee dioceses within their province.
It has been estimated that more than 130 U.S. bishops – roughly one-third of those still living — have been accused during their time as bishops of failing to respond adequately to allegations of sexual misconduct in their diocese, and several dozen U.S. bishops are said to have been accused of sexual misconduct.
The new measures adopted by the bishops have been widely criticized for their lack of mandatory lay involvement, though they do allow for it.
The pope must give final approval to the results of any investigation, and in cases where the accused bishop is found to have covered-up abuse, the bishop has the option of resigning rather than removal.
The Vatican document does stipulate what steps the metropolitan must take when investigating allegations against a bishop both in terms of keeping the accused informed and having the opportunity to defend himself as well as in collecting evidence.
Last fall, the National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People that advises the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had issued recommendations that it called “specific to restoring the trust of the faithful.”
These included a call for “an independent review of all archives, clergy files and seminary files, going back to 1950 if possible” and making the results public.
National Review Board chair Francesco Cesareo addressed the June meeting of bishops, re-stating some of the board’s recommendations and the need to include lay people in the review process. He argued it would allow for greater transparency and accountability, as well to show “how laity and the episcopacy can be co-responsible for the church’s well-being.”
Caesareo is president of Assumption College in Worcester, and is also overseeing at O’Malley’s request an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct made by former seminarians at St. John’s Seminary in Boston. He spoke with priests and deacons of the Springfield Diocese about the church’s sexual abuse crisis in October.
It is unclear at this point how the allegation against Weldon, who served as bishop from 1950 to 1977, will advance either within the church or outside of it.
The office of Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni acknowledged receiving the initial report from the diocese and urged victims to call its hotline established in February for allegations no matter how old of clergy sexual abuse of minors.
In 2004, the office under then Hampden DA William Bennett had hoped to bring rape and other charges against the late Bishop Thomas Dupre, but a grand jury indicted Dupre only on charges of sexual abuse of a minor that Bennett said fell outside the statue of limitations and not on obstruction of justice.
Dupre was removed from ministry by the Vatican in 2004 and his name was added recently to the list on the diocesan website of clergy in the Springfield Diocese credibly accused of sexual abuse.