Providence man urges diocese to release information about his abuser
By Madeleine List
September 23, 2019
A Providence man who says he was sexually abused as a child by the Rev. Normand J. Demers, a former priest in the Diocese of Providence who died last year, spoke about his experience in front of the Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul on Monday.
Robert Houllahan, 50, said Demers sexually abused him at St. Joseph Catholic Church, in Providence, when Houllahan was 7 or 8 years old.
Accompanied on Monday by Robert Hoatson, co-founder and president of Road to Recovery, a New Jersey-based organization that advocates for victims of sexual abuse, Houllahan called on the Diocese of Providence to release all of the information it has on Demers and the allegations against him.
Demers was named in a list, released by the diocese in July, of 50 clergy members it said had been “credibly accused” of abusing children. Earlier this month, the diocese added a 51st name to the list.
But Houllahan said releasing the names of these clergy members wasn’t enough.
“I think they should come clean about these guys,” he said. “They should release whatever they know.”
The Diocese of Providence suspended Demers in 2002 after receiving a complaint that he had sexually assaulted a child while serving as a chaplain at Our Lady of Fatima Hospital.
But allegations about Demers’ conduct had been raised long before that complaint was filed in 2002.
In 1989, Demers was forced to resign from The Haitian Project, a nonprofit organization he’d helped establish in Haiti, after multiple boys at an orphanage run by the organization accused him of inappropriate touching and of forcing them to strip naked in front of him, according to a 2002 Providence Journal article. Demers was briefly detained by Haitian authorities and removed from the country.
The diocese told The Journal at the time that it had received a document from Haitian officials stating that the accusations against Demers were “unsubstantiated” and that he had resigned from St. Joseph Church, where he served from 1974 to 1990, for “pastoral” reasons. After a short leave of absence, he was reassigned to St. Martha Church in East Providence, where he served until 2002. He also served at Our Lady of Fatima Church in North Providence between 1998 and 2002, according to the diocese.
“Normand Demers was removed from ministry in 2002 and never had another assignment again,” Carolyn Cronin, spokeswoman for the Diocese of Providence, wrote in an email.
Houllahan said the day he was assaulted, a nun took him out of Sunday school and brought him to see Demers, who took Houllahan into his residence at the church and assaulted him violently, Houllahan said.
“It was demeaning,” he said. “It was terrible.”
The assault affected him for years, he said.
“Puberty is bad enough without having a serial pedophile haunting your life,” he said.
Houllahan is being represented by Mitchell Garabedian, a prominent Boston lawyer who represents many victims of clergy sexual abuse.
Garabedian said he contacted the diocese about the allegations in 2012, but it responded that it wasn’t interested in a settlement because, at the time, the statute of limitations had run out on Houllahan’s allegations.
Houllahan also reported the abuse to the Rhode Island State Police three years ago and went back to the agency last year to report additional facts, Garabedian said.
This summer, the General Assembly extended the statute of limitations for victims of childhood sexual assault to sue their abusers from seven to 35 years.
But the law contains a caveat for victims who wish to sue institutions, not perpetrators. In those cases, the 35-year rule would apply to future litigation only, except in cases where the victims did not “discover” an injury or condition caused by sexual abuse they suffered as children until later in life. They then would have seven years from the time they discovered the injury to sue.
Garabedian said he is investigating whether a civil lawsuit can be filed on Houllahan’s behalf.
But Houllahan said that telling his story publicly is his first priority.
“Itʼs more important for me to get this guyʼs story told than it is to possibly seek compensation,” he said. “His story is a very ugly one ... It should be embarrassing to the church.”