Retired judge will investigate sexual abuse allegations against late bishop
By Larry Parnass
July 22, 2019
|Retired Superior Court Judge Peter Velis has been commissioned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield to investigate a former altar boy's allegation that former Bishop Christopher Weldon sexually abused him in the 1960s and facilitated the abuse of others by local clergy. |
A retired judge will review a Chicopee man's allegation that former Bishop Christopher J. Weldon subjected him to sexual abuse in the 1960s.
The man and his allies are taking a wait-and-see approach to the news.
The Springfield diocese announced Monday that Peter A. Velis, a retired Superior Court judge, will begin work immediately to investigate reports from a former altar boy that Weldon not only assaulted him, but facilitated his abuse and that of other children by local clergy.
The man who came forward in 2014 to report being assaulted by Weldon said Monday that he is puzzled by the turn of events, saying he received support from the church's in-house review board when we went before it a year ago. He declined to say whether he will participate in the judge's review.
"I told this story in June  and they were in tears," the man said. The Eagle is withholding the man's identity due to his wish to remain private.
Mark Dupont, spokesman for the diocese, said the decision to seek outside help in assessing the allegations against Weldon stemmed in part from disagreement internally about the Chicopee man's credibility.
"Given the recent public disagreement between this victim and the Diocesan Review Board about the description of the allegations and findings of the board, Bishop [Mitchell T.] Rozanski felt that, in this situation, turning this matter over to an independent and outside party was both warranted and the most prudent course of action," Dupont said in a statement.
Dupont said Rozanski made the call to seek help from Velis and selected the judge from a list of potential independent parties created by Jeffrey Trant, director of the church's Office of Safe Environment and Victim Assistance.
Dupont said the bishop learned recently that new rules governing how church officials handle allegations involving bishops do not apply to clergy who are deceased.
Weldon died in 1982 after leading the diocese from 1950 to 1977. The Weldon Rehabilitation Hospital at 175 Carew St. in Springfield, part of Mercy Medical Center, carries the late bishop's name.
No timeline was announced Monday for the probe Velis is taking on. The judge's report will be sent to Rozanski, Dupont said, and the bishop plans to publicly release the findings.
Olan Horne, an advocate for clergy abuse survivors, said Monday that Weldon's accuser has been waiting for more than four years to be taken seriously.
Last September, the man, who is in his late 60s, received a letter from the review board saying that it found his story of molestation by Weldon more than half a century ago "compelling and credible."
"We want to express our sincere sorrow for the pain and suffering you have endured," the board wrote to the man, according to a letter obtained by The Eagle.
The man also reported sexual assaults by two priests, the Rev. Edward Authier and the Rev. Clarence Forand, one of which is listed by the diocese as "credibly accused."
"As we explained to you, the Board has no other authority except to notify the Bishop that we find your allegations credible," the September letter says.
Horne questioned whether a former judge who decided cases based on standards of criminal law is in a position to evaluate the Chicopee man's allegations, given the lack of corroborating evidence a half century later.
"This thing's already been decided. All they're looking for is a redo to exonerate themselves," Horne said of the diocese. "This is almost dizzying and has to stop. I believe his story is credible. Move forward."
The Chicopee man also expressed doubts about the process announced Monday. "I'm disappointed in the diocese that no one can make a decision," he said.
In late May, John Hale, the chairman of the review board issued a statement denying that the panel had found the man's allegations against Weldon credible.
Hale said in the statement that the Chicopee man did not allege Weldon abused him. But the man says he has consistently put Weldon at the center of his reports of clergy abuse.
"I mentioned Weldon when I first went to the church in 2014," he said Monday.
"They know they can't defend their lies, so they want a redo," the man said. "Somebody [within the diocese] said `We're not going to win this down the road.' "
"I've got a letter from the board," he said. "The board was pretty adamant that they didn't need to talk, that it was credible."
The man said he was notified several days ago by Trant that the diocese planned to seek a third party to review the allegations against Weldon.
He said Trant told him the review would address not only his allegations against Weldon, but the way the diocese handled his reports.
In June, after months of seeking an audience with the bishop, the Chicopee man told his story directly to Rozanski. Later that day, the diocese filed an initial report of a claim of abuse regarding Weldon with the Hampden County District Attorney's Office. The man said in June that he was pleased by his meeting with the bishop and called on survivors to tell their stories. "My impression was that the bishop `got it,' " he said.
But now, he indicated that he questions having come to that conclusion.
"I'm not impressed," he said of the judge's hiring. "I suspect it's not objective."
Further, the man says that after he met with Rozanski, the bishop pointedly asked whether he meant that he was sexually abused by Weldon.
"I said yes," the man said. And then he says he turned the question on the bishop, asking whether the account he had just provided constituted sexual abuse.
"And he said, `Yes, I would say that sounds like sexual abuse,'" the man said.
Following that meeting, Dupont offered a comment that seemed to support the fact the man had come forward.
"Both Bishop and Mr. Trant appreciate the courage it takes any person, including this individual, to share such a traumatic story of abuse," Dupont said in a statement in June.
Report to Vatican
In a separate action, the diocese said Rozanski had been "directed" to provide information on the Weldon allegations to the Vatican. Dupont said that the diocese does not expect the Vatican to investigate the matter itself.
Dupont said the material sent to Rome involves "all information gathered to date, including the more recent direct allegations made against the former bishop by this individual to Bishop Rozanski."
The eventual report by Velis will be sent later, he said.
Velis is an attorney in private practice, following his retirement from the bench in 2012. In the 1970s, he served as a state representative in the Fifth Hampden District. As a judge, he oversaw cases in the four western counties, including Berkshire County, which is part of the Springfield diocese.
In a statement, Dupont noted that while on the bench in 2003, Velis ruled that documents related to an investigation into the killing of Daniel Croteau, a former altar boy, should be released to the public. He termed that ruling evidence "that the diocese has selected an investigator who will be truly independent, impartial, and outside."