Accusations Roil Worcester Diocese
Sex Allegations against Seven Priests Are Raising Questions of Trust
By Brian McGrory and Linda Matchan
February 8, 1993
In the aging cities and rural towns that dot the central Massachusetts landscape, a stunning number of men and women have publicly accused Roman Catholic priests of sex crimes, leading to a hushed but inevitable dissolution of trust in the local diocese, local observers say.
The accusations of sex crimes and improprieties - involving at least seven priests, more than in any other part of the state - have also left Bishop Timothy Harrington of the Worcester Diocese and prior church officials fending off repeated charges that they did not take strong enough steps to stop or address the grotesque alleged crimes.
"The first word that comes to mind is trust," said David O'Brien, a history professor at Holy Cross College. "It happened a few years ago with nursery schools. There is a dramatic change in trust. We will see it now with clergy as well. People are worried and anxious."
Why the alleged sex crimes have occurred at such a great rate in Worcester, no one seems to know, though a few blame weak church leadership. Several analysts warn that the surge of accusations here may be paralleled elsewhere, in Massachusetts and the rest of the country.
"The priesthood is made up of many fine, dedicated men, but a lot of them are very lonely people," said Bernard Swain, a former editor of a Worcester Catholic paper, and a consultant to church officials elsewhere. "Rectories are the loneliest places in the church, and among the loneliest places in society. It is not just in Worcester, it is all over."
Local parishioners who have leveled the accusations that, as children, they were raped or fondled by trusted priests have said that they find it liberating, even therapeutic, to go public with their tales. Indeed, the surge of accusations follows the widespread press attention given to former priest James Porter and his dozens of alleged victims in southeastern Massachusetts.
On Jan. 28, Porter was sentenced to six months in jail in Minnesota for molesting his children's baby sitter. He still faces a battery of criminal charges in Fall River for alleged rapes of boys in the 1960s.
"The courage of victims to come forward is fed by the courage of other victims coming forward," said Elizabeth Stellas, a program specialist for the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence, which monitors such cases. "The Porter case has started a groundswell that is giving other victims more courage to step out of their shame and see that they were harmed and need some help."
Last month, Jennifer Kraskouskas, a Northeastern University freshman from Gardner, publicly identified herself as the victim who successfully charged Msgr. Robert Kelley with repeatedly raping her in her own bedroom when she was just 9 years old. He had told her that if she ever dared say anything, she would never be believed. Msgr. Kelley pleaded guilty and is now serving a five- to seven-year jail term.
In the past week, four others from Leominster and Gardner have telephoned Kraskouskas' lawyer, Robert Rice Jr., saying they, too, were victims of Msgr. Kelley.
"What you are seeing now is people feeling more comfortable about coming forward and that they are going to be believed. . . . There is a comfort in numbers," said Eric McLeish, a Boston lawyer who represents scores of Porter's accusers in Massachusetts.
Among the accused in and around Worcester:
- Msgr. Leo Battista of Leominster, who surrendered his social worker's license in 1991 after he admitted to having sex with a nun in his pychotherapeutic care from 1972 until at least 1977. The nun said that he once had sex with her when she was still woozy from drugs taken in a suicide attempt.
- Former Rev. David A. Holley, who has been accused of forcing two former altar boys to engage in repeated acts of oral sex while he served at a parish in East Douglas in the early 1960s. In New Mexico, where Holley was sent for treatment, he was indicted last week on charges of molesting young boys in the early '70s.
- Rev. Joseph Fredette of Worcester was accused of assaulting halfway-house residents between the ages of 13 and 16 in 1972 and 1974. He has fled to Canada, while criminal charges are pending in Worcester.
- Rev. Ronald D. Provost of Barre was found guilty last week of photographing a nude boy in September 1992. Father Provost's lawyer, James Reardon, argued that it was an accident, but the priest had handed over to police hundreds of photographs of nude boys.
- Rev. Justin Steponaitis, who is accused in a lawsuit of sexually assaulting Michael A. Lavigne, a former altar boy at the St. Francis of Assisi Church in Athol.
- Rev. Victor Frobas, a former visiting priest at St. Rose of Lima Church in Northborough, who was accused by Robert Malo of raping him in 1978.
- Msgr. Kelley of Gardner, who assaulted Kraskouskas from 1983 to 1985.
The Worcester clergy, in the eyes of many, has been seen as something less than repentant. After Msgr. Kelley was sentenced to prison, 100 area priests signed an open letter published in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, not to apologize to the victim, but to castigate the newspaper for publishing a front-page photograph showing Kelley in tears upon hearing of his sentence.
"The use of such a picture was sensational and in poor taste," the clergy members wrote. "It added to the heavy pain already felt by the entire Catholic community and its priests."
Bishop Harrington would not speak to reporters last week about the growing number of accusations being leveled against priests in his diocese. In contrast, Fall River Bishop Sean O'Malley took questions about the Porter case at a press conference a few hours after his installation as bishop last year.
"At this time, because of the pending court actions, and the threat of court actions, it would not be advisable for him Harrington to discuss ongoing litigation against the diocese," said the church's lawyer, James Reardon, who also represented Father Provost. "It is not a case that should be tried in the press. He has expressed his deep sorrow and compassion to any victims involved."
But some of those victims said the sorrow is not nearly enough. Kraskouskas recalled a meeting with Bishop Harrington in 1990 when he appeared less contrite than concerned about himself.
"It was as if he was the one that was hurt, that he didn't want to deal with it," said Kraskouskas, in an interview last week. "He said he would pay for therapy. But for someone who was so concerned, he never called to check on me after that."
Kraskouskas said she and her parents tried to tell Bishop Harrington there may be other victims. They said that Msgr. Kelley had shown them photographs of other young children who, they feared, may have been molested.
"It was implied to us that Bishop Harrington knew what was going on," she said. "He said, 'Don't show me any more, I can't take any more.' "
In a second incident, according to sources familiar with the Worcester Diocese, a family who had accused a priest of sexually assaulting their child had been assured by Bishop Harrington that the priest had been sent to an institution for help and then banned from serving anywhere as a reverend.
But a paper run by the Worcester Diocese inadvertently published his name within the past several years as part of a directory of local priests. He was serving in a church in the Southwest, according to the sources, who said Bishop Harrington had become infuriated at the publication of the priest's name.
Some officials familiar with the local church argued that Bishop Harrington's policies were little different from those in other dioceses: believe the victim, move the priest out of the church, and insist that all sides remain quiet.
"What they were really protecting was the good public name of the church," said one source familiar with the Worcester Diocese. "They were keeping it all under wraps. Part of the healing process is the public affirmation that you were the wronged person. But if you keep it covered up, you can't get that affirmation."
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