Church Law Versus State Law Gelineau Testifies in Rape Case
The Testimony of the Bishop in the Case, in Which the Rev. Alfred R. Desrosiers Is Accused of Rape, Apparently Is a National First
By Tracy Breton
March 20, 1997
In what is believed to be a national precedent, Roman Catholic Bishop Louis E. Gelineau testified yesterday under subpoena by the state in a criminal case involving a priest in his diocese who stands accused of raping a woman more than 20 years ago.
Also testifying in the pretrial hearing was the Rev. Normand Godin, who, like Bishop Gelineau, had conversations with the indicted priest, the Rev. Alfred R. Desrosiers.
The attorney general's office wants Superior Court Judge Thomas H. Needham to order Bishop Gelineau and Father Godin to testify at Desrosiers's coming rape trial about the substance of their conversations with Father Desrosiers.
Father Desrosiers argues that the statements he gave the two are confidential and thus inadmissible.
Needham must decide whether canon or civil law takes precedence, and whether a Rhode Island statute would preclude such testimony.
He is asking for written memos on the issue from defense lawyer James T. McCormick and prosecutor Jack McMahon. He also invited lawyers for Bishop Gelineau and the Diocese to weigh in. "It's a very delicate issue before the court today," Needham remarked.
At issue is a state law enacted in 1960 entitled "privileged communications to clergymen."
The law says that in a trial, no clergyman or priest "shall be competent to testify concerning any confession made to him . . . without the consent of the person making the confession."
The law also says that no priest, rabbi or minister "shall be allowed in giving testimony to disclose any confidential communication, properly entrusted to him in his professional capacity . . . without the consent of the person making such communication."
Needham said the Desrosiers case is the first time a Rhode judge has been asked to interpret that law.
A judge in Pennsylvania, which has a similar law to Rhode Island's, ruled in a civil case that one could not hide behind canon law to escape testifying. And bishops in other states, including Massachusetts, have testified at civil trials and depositions involving sexual abuse by parish priests.
Bishop Gelineau said that under court order, he previously testified at a deposition in a civil case involving alleged sexual abuse by a priest - but that was settled out-of-court.
But yesterday was the bishop's first public appearance in a courtroom to testify about one of his priests, and Diocese lawyer William T. Murphy said it was the first time in the United States that a bishop had been subpoenaed to testify in a criminal case involving a priest in his diocese.
Neither Bishop Gelineau nor Father Godin seemed very comfortable with the situation.
Desrosiers was placed on a leave of absence immediately after Cynthia M. Lewis, now 40 and living in Lincoln, called Bishop Gelineau's office to say that Desrosiers had sexually abused her as a teenager.
Desrosiers was pastor of Our Lady of Victories, in Woonsocket, when he was suspended. He was assistant pastor of St. Joan of Arc Church, in Cumberland, at the time of the alleged rape, in 1972.
Although Father Desrosiers is charged with just one count of rape, Lewis contends that he plied her with liquor on more than one occasion, beginning in 1972, when she was 15, and that he had sex with her up to four times a week for almost two years.
"He would talk about how . . . I was a gift of God to him," Lewis told state police. "He compared me to Mary, the Mother of Jesus . . . that I was like Mary to him because I was helping him to become a better priest."
Desrosiers has pleaded not guilty to the rape charge.
He and Gelineau are also defendants in a civil suit Lewis has brought for money damages.
The cases against Desrosiers are based on Lewis's "recovered memory," which Desrosiers's lawyer says is unreliable. As part of the pretrial hearings in the criminal case, McCormick is trying to persuade Needham to bar Lewis from testifying at trial, which would mean the end of the case.
Within the next month, Needham will rule on the reliability of the accuser's flashbacks, along with the issue of whether Bishop Gelineau and Father Godin will be compelled to testify.
Bishop Gelineau and Father Godin both gave statements to the state police that were read to the grand jury that indicted Desrosiers. But neither testified before the grand jury.
In court earlier this week, McMahon questioned the necessity of a ruling on Lewis's reliability, pointing out that Desrosiers had already admitted to Father Godin that he had had a sexual relationship with Lewis, and had also given a similar, though less detailed, statement to Bishop Gelineau.
The only issue for the jury to decide, he argued, was whether the sexual relationship was consensual or coerced. But Needham said he believed that he was required to make a factual finding.
The state's theory is that while Father Desrosiers did not physically force Lewis to have sex with him, she consented because of the power he held over her as a priest.
For 50 minutes yesterday, McMahon and McCormick questioned Bishop Gelineau and Father Godin about the conversations they had with Father Desrosiers the day of - and day after - the priest was suspended. But neither revealed the substance of those conversations, saying they were confidential.
Asked what he talked about with Father Derosiers the day he suspended him, the bishop replied: "We discussed certain events. I asked certain questions and he was required under church law to obey and give answers." He said his questions were posed out of "my concern for his spiritual well-being" and that under canon law, "my conversation . . . was confidential."
Asked whether he was hearing confession from Father Desrosiers, the bishop said: "I cannot answer that. Canon law does not permit me to say when or if I entered into that relationship with anyone."
What would happen if he were compelled to testify about that conversation? McCormick asked.
"It has a very serious effect because there's a conflict of law . . . it's a dilemma," the bishop replied.
Father Godin also refused to reveal whether his conversation with Father Desrosiers was confessional. He said he was acting as "spiritual and psychological adviser" that day.
"Did you ever tell Father Desrosiers that any discussions he had with you, you would disclose to anyone else?" McCormick asked.
"No," the priest replied, "It was understood . . . it would not be disclosed." If the cloak of confidentiality was removed, priests would be apt to be less candid, he said.
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