Veteran lawyer for victims of clergy sexual abuse ‘absolutely not surprised’ by Bishop Weldon allegations
By Anne-Gerard Flynn
July 30, 2019
|A portrait of the late Bishop Christopher J. Weldon hangs in the Bishop Maguire Pastoral Center across from the Springfield Diocese’s Chancery Office on Elliot Street.|
Photo by Anne-Gerard Flynn
Attorney John J. Stobierski was not surprised when he read news reports this spring that a man had come forward with accusations he had been sexually molested by the late Bishop Christopher J. Weldon during the 1950s.
“During the years I represented survivors of abuse, I heard a number of references to Weldon," said Stobierski who litigated and negotiated more than five dozen clergy sexual abuse cases with settlements totaling more than $10 million. “I am absolutely not surprised.”
Weldon served from 1950 through 1977 as the fourth bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield.
Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski, the diocese’s ninth bishop, met in June with the most recent alleged victim to come forward with claims of sexual abuse by Weldon. Rozanski announced last week that retired Superior Court Judge Peter J. Velis would lead an investigation into the allegations.
Stobierski described Velis as “a man of integrity,” but added what the investigation yields will depend on what Velis has access to and what accountability is given to the public.
In short, Stobierski said, Velis “needs free rein.”
“Will he truly be an independent force?,” asked Stobierski who represented 46 alleged victims of clergy sex abuse who settled claims with the diocese for $7.75 million in 2004, and 28 of the 59 survivors in the $4.5 million settlement reached in 2008.
He added, "Will he be entitled to all information, will everyone associated with the diocese be told they are duty-bound to cooperate with him, will he have to sign a confidentiality agreement?”
“The report,” Stobierski said, “needs to be made public. Good, bad or indifferent, the investigation and its findings need to see the light of day. Lack of transparency is what continues to dog this diocese.”
The diocese said in the aftermath of the recent allegation against Weldon a “careful review of documents in our attorneys’ office and records here at the diocesan office” had “identified two prior instances where former Bishop Christopher Weldon’s name was part of either a law suit or complaint received directly by the diocese” and that “neither was deemed credible.”
Stobierski would like to see a grand jury investigation into the sexual abuse of children undertaken in the Springfield diocese similar to ones a number of state attorneys general are conducting in the aftermath of the 900-page report released last August by a Pennsylvania grand jury on such abuse in six dioceses there dating back to the 1940s and involving some 300 priests and 1,000 alleged victims.
He noted the Office of Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly conducted a grand jury investigation into the sexual abuse of children in the Archdiocese of Boston in 2003, and he feels what he calls the “depth of the scandal” in this diocese warrants it as “one of its bishops — Weldon — has been accused of sexual abuse of minors and another — the late Thomas Dupre — indicted on such charges.”
The grand jury that indicted Dupre on the charges dating to the 1970s in 2004 did not indict him on obstruction of justice after reviewing some 75,000 pages of documentation submitted by the diocese.
However, the broader question of any negligence by the diocese in the handling of clerical sexual abuse matters was not directly addressed.
Questions have lingered for decades related to how well accusations of abuse were documented early on by the diocese, where were such files kept and who had access to destroy them as has been alleged and for what purpose.
Dupre, a canon lawyer, held positions of power in the diocese dating back to the late 1970s.
It was during Weldon’s term that Chicopee altar boy Danny Croteau was murdered in April 1972 and the only publicly identified suspected today remains former priest Richard Lavigne, who had cultivated a long-term association with the 13-year-old Croteau and his family.
Lavigne, who has denied any involvement in the murder, was convicted in 1992 on two child molestation charges.
It has been alleged by a number of sources that Weldon interfered with the police investigation into Lavigne as a suspect in the Croteau murder, and the question that follows such accusations — now in light of the allegations of molestation against Weldon himself — is why.
One affidavit filed in 2003 in opposition to a court motion by the diocese seeking dismissal of suits relating to sexual abuse allegations before 1971 said that Lavigne stated “something to the effect that ‘they can’t do anything to me and laughed about it’” in relating how a pastor allegedly criticized him for having young boys in his room.
Dupre, who died in 2016, in many ways is the bookend to earlier abuses. He removed priests with credible accusations of abuse made in the 1990s from public ministry — but only after the Dallas norms approved by the U.S. bishops in 2002 called for zero tolerance — and sought Vatican removal from the clerical ministry for Lavigne years after Lavigne was convicted of child molestation charges.
The diocese settled its first suits with 17 alleged victims of Lavigne in 1994 for $1.4 million.
“Dupre was really antagonistic to survivors,” Stobierski recalled.
“If you look at how he conducted himself and the diocese before the settlements, it was denial, delay, massaging the facts. He was the architect of that approach.”
Dupre himself only resigned as bishop in February 2004 when confronted by The Republican about allegations of sexual abuse against him and was indicted a few months later but never prosecuted by Hampden District Attorney Wiiliam Bennett due to the charges falling outside the statute of limitations.
There has never been a thorough re-investigation of the Croteau murder, though Bennett reopened the investigation when Lavigne was charged.
Velis is the judge who in October 2003 ruled that certain investigatory documents related to the case and impounded in 1991 could be released. The order was reversed on an appeal Bennett’s office made to the courts, but upheld by the State Supreme Court.
The motion to unimpound the documents was brought by The Republican and Stobierski who represented some three dozen of Lavigne’s alleged victims as well as the parents of Croteau.
The documents released in 2004, however, only represented a small amount of the documents held by the Hampden District Attorney’s Office.
More were ordered released in 2008 by Hampden Superior Court Judge John A. Agostini in the context of an ongoing dispute at the time between the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield and its insurance carriers.
One of the unsealed files from 2008 reportedly included an alleged eyewitness’ assertion that stated the individual was encouraged by then District Attorney Matthew J. Ryan Jr. and Weldon to keep quiet about what was witnessed.
Any possible investigation by a grand jury, which has the power to subpoena witnesses and documents, would likely need to involve the Worcester diocese as that diocese was part of the Springfield diocese until 1950.
“I had men quite old 10 years ago coming forward about really, really old cases of abuse,” said Stobierski whose partner John P. O’Connor continues to represent clients with claims of clergy sexual abuse in the diocese though he does not.
“They told me about their abuse and how the diocese functioned going almost as far back as when the diocese included Worcester.”
Stobierski said that not all the alleged victims he met with pursued civil suits against the diocese which themselves are not an admission of guilt and that the compensation for those who did does not erase the harm experienced by someone being sexually abused as child and is compounded when answers of how this was allowed to happen remain unanswered.
“When there is someone who is molested and — many of my clients are in their 30s to 70s now – it effects their whole families,” said Stobierski who had one younger client die before a settlement was reached.
“It is the ripple effect of a child being abused — the problems continue on for the lives of these victims and the people who have been harmed deserve to understand the depths of the problem.”