Abuse Alleged, Priest on Leave
Bishop Gelineau Personally Informs Members of the West Warwick Parish of His Action
By Richard C. Dujardin
March 21, 1995
In a highly unusual move, Roman Catholic Bishop Louis E. Gelineau went to a West Warwick church on Sunday to tell parishioners that he had put their pastor on an indefinite leave of absence because of allegations of sexual misconduct.
At three Masses at St. John the Baptist Church, the bishop said a man earlier this month accused the Rev. Michael LaMountain of "serious" sexual misconduct several years ago and that state police are investigating.
It was the first time Bishop Gelineau has chosen to deliver an announcement of that kind in person.
In an interview yesterday, he said he took the step "because I knew the people would be hurt terribly (by the news) and I wanted to join them. I told them I was there to pray with them and to pray for the best possible resolution."
Asked why he went to St. John's to deliver the message when he had not done so in the case of other priests who have been accused, the bishop said this case was different because the original allegation was made "directly to me."
He also said that the situation warranted a visit but did not say why other cases didn't.
On Sunday Bishop Gelineau told the parishioners that he had met with a man on March 3 who told him that he had been a victim of misconduct by Father LaMountain several years ago.
The man, he said, also told him that similar allegations had been made by another man and that those complaints were already being investigated by law enforcement officials.
(The bishop left unclear whether the alleged misbehavior took place while Father LaMountain was at St. John's or at one of his earlier parishes - St. Joseph in Woonsocket and St. Kevin in Warwick.)
Placed on leave
On the same day the bishop talked to the alleged victim, Father LaMountain was put on administrative leave pending an investigation.
The diocese's education and compliance coordinator, former Massachusetts State Police Lt. Robert McCarthy, interviewed the complainant the next day and advised the bishop to inform state police immediately.
Father LaMountain could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Sunday's announcement came just three days after another Rhode Island priest, the Rev. James M. Silva, pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting an 18-year-old man in 1991 when he was temporarily assigned to St. Theresa Parish in Burrilliville.
Over the last 10 years, at least six Rhode Island priests have been named as defendants in civil suits alleging abuse and 4 have been criminally charged and convicted.
Father LaMountain, 46, known to most people in town as "Father Mike," was a popular priest at St. John's, where he had been pastor since 1987.
His sermons and Masses drew people from other parishes in West Warwick and Coventry. A man with an outgoing personality, he was often seen at local eateries and many civic functions.
Opposed nude nightclub
He was also the priest who, in times past, had gone to Town Council meetings to protest the issuance of a liquor license to an all-nude nightclub, the Playhouse, that used to operate across the street from his red-brick church in West Warwick's Arctic section. He was the chaplain to the town's police and fire departments.
"Father LaMountain himself is greatly saddened by this," Bishop Gelineau told parishioners at the 9 and 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. Masses Sunday. "Without revealing his guilt or innocence about past deeds, he expressed most sincere sorrow to me for the hurt this situation causes to his family, his parishioners and the Church at large."
The congregants sat stunned, people who were there said. Many cried.
"For our part, it is too early to judge, the bishop continued. "We cannot speak of guilt or innocence at this time. Remember that even in our legal structure a person is innocent until proven guilty. . . . I would ask, therefore, that we all refrain from speculation or conclusions that are based upon unfounded stories or rumors or gossip."
He appealed for prayers, both for the priest and "all who are hurt by this."
"If the allegations are true that there are victims of misconduct, our hearts and prayers go out to them and everything possible will be done to heal the hurt."
Despite the bishop's visit, some parishioners said yesterday they still felt that the diocese waited too long to inform people about the reasons behind Father LaMountain's sudden departure, noting that rumors had been buzzing since he left three weekends ago.
But most people expressed shock.
The news 'unbelievable'
James Kiley, the Coventry Town Council president and former state deputy of the Knights of Columbus, is not a member of the parish but would frequently attend Masses there. He said he found the news devastating as well as "unbelievable."
Father LaMountain is a "very good friend of mine," he said. They had played golf together, and when the new Coventry Town Council was sworn in last fall, he had asked the priest to preside.
Kiley said he hopes the allegations will prove groundless. "In this day and age, there are so many copycat things going on," he said. "This reminds me of the case in Chicago when the cardinal (Joseph Bernardin) was accused of sexual misconduct, and the complaint was later withdrawn. Hopefully this will be the same."
Kent County High Sheriff Norman J. DeFosse, a member of St. John's for 60 years, said Father LaMountain had done "a lot of good" for the parish. "When he came here the parish really needed a shot in the arm and he did that," DeFosse said.
He said that when he saw the bishop at the 9 a.m. Mass Sunday, he felt relieved because the parish had been rife with rumors since the priest left without explanation.
"By the bishop coming here we were able to (find out) what was actually going on," DeFosse said.
Two weeks ago, Sara and Frank Fitzpatrick of Cranston, leaders of a support group for victims of sexual abuse, issued a call to Bishop Gelineau to speak out more forcefully on abuse by priests. They said that up until that time, the bishop had never gone to a parish where alleged sexual abuse had occurred to encourage people to speak out.
The Fitzpatricks spoke at a press conference announcing the filing of a lawsuit by a 44-year-old Charlestown woman who said she had been sexually abused by Monsignor Louis W. Dunn while she was a teenager at St. Thomas Church in Providence.
Not aware of request
Bishop Gelineau said yesterday that his visit to St. John's Sunday had nothing to do with the Fitzpatricks' request, saying that he had not even been aware of it.
Asked if his visit represented a new policy, the bishop said he hoped he would not have reason to do it again.
"It is very sad when there is even one instance of sexual misconduct," he said. "It is sad for everyone, for the people involved and for their families. And when it happens with a priest it is even more terrible," the bishop said. "We have to take every possible step to see that these things don't happen again."
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