Rape Case against Priest Dismissed
The State Failed to Show That Force Was Used by a Roman Catholic Priest in the Alleged Seduction of an 18-Year-Old College Student, a Superior Court Judge Rules
By Elliot Krieger
June 19, 1997
In a rebuke to the prosecution, Superior Court Judge Stephen J. Fortunato Jr. yesterday dismissed the rape case against Monsignor Louis Ward Dunn, a retired Roman Catholic priest, before the case even went to a jury.
Fortunato, ruling in favor of a motion filed by Father Dunn's lawyer, Bruce E. Vealey, found that the state had failed to make its case against Father Dunn.
"I can only reach one conclusion," Fortunato said, in issuing his ruling. "The state has failed to present evidence that a reasonable jury could rely upon in order to return a conviction."
On Tuesday, a 14-member jury heard several hours of testimony from Lucille Suzanne Farr, a 50-year-old woman from California, who contended that 32 years ago, when she was a freshman at the University of Rhode Island, she had been raped by Father Dunn.
Without even having to hear the case for the defense, Fortunato ruled that a rape could not have occurred because the state failed to prove that Father Dunn used force or the threat of force in order to have sexual intercourse with Farr.
Father Dunn, now 76 years old and living in a Providence retirement home for priests, smiled broadly and was embraced by supporters after Fortunato dismissed the case.
His joy may be short-lived, however, as he faces another criminal trial, on a charge that he allegedly raped a parishioner 15 years ago, when he was pastor of St. Thomas Church, in Providence. He also faces three civil suits for damages, one of which was filed in federal court last month by Farr.
Outside the courthouse, Farr read a brief statement after the ruling.
"I am deeply upset and saddened that the jury was not allowed to hear this case in its entirety," she said. "I regret my inability to convince the judge that the authority represented in my then-priest, confessor and spiritual guide was a major factor in this case. I can only hope that this experience will not discourage other victims from coming forward."
At the outset of the trial, Fortunato made two key rulings that may have helped Father Dunn. He ruled that the state could present no evidence about the other charges of sexual abuse filed against Father Dunn.
Nor could the state present evidence that Farr became pregnant by Father Dunn and gave birth to a baby girl, whom she put up for adoption and has not seen since.
"I will have to seek justice in federal court," Farr said, and added at the conclusion of her statement, "Monsignor Dunn will be judged in a final, higher court."
Several women who say they were sexually abused by Father Dunn attended each day of the trial. Some would have been willing to testify against Father Dunn had the judge allowed them to do so.
In a news conference yesterday afternoon, Atty. Gen. Jeffrey B. Pine said he was disappointed with Fortunato's decision.
"We would have hoped it had gone to the jury so that they could have made their verdict known," Pine said. "We can disagree with his ruling, but we have to live with it."
Last year, following several controversial rulings on domestic-assault and sexual-assault cases, Pine criticized Fortunato, saying that the judge was insensitive to female victims of abuse and assault.
Pine said yesterday that the second case against Father Dunn will go forward.
"We'll have to present the facts as we did on this one and hope for the best," Pine said. "Every case is different. Every victim is different."
The prosecutor, Asst. Atty. Gen. David Prior, was not available for comment after the judge issued his ruling.
In the trial's one day of testimony, Farr recounted how she entered URI as an 18-year-old freshman in fall 1964. At the time, she wanted to become a nun.
She met Father Dunn, who at the time was the 44-year-old pastor of Christ the King Church, near the URI campus in Kingston. She began working part time at the rectory, and Father Dunn became her confessor and her mentor.
She testified that several times, while she was working at the rectory, she and Father Dunn would drink champagne, and she would take off her blouse and bra and allow him to stroke her breasts. She testified that she "did not consider that sexual in any way."
The rape charge concerned one night in spring 1965 when, after Farr had removed her blouse and bra, Father Dunn backed or pushed her to his bedroom and pushed her onto the bed, where they had sexual intercourse.
After that night, Farr continued to work for Father Dunn, and they continued to have sexual relations for two years.
In dismissing the charge against Father Dunn, Fortunato said yesterday that there was no evidence presented that Farr tried to resist Father Dunn's advances.
"There was no evidence that the defendant . . . was overcoming the will of a nonconsenting female," Fortunato said. "A simple 'no' or 'stop it' would have been appropriate. Nothing was done when it would have been reasonable to have done something" to stop the sexual act.
Fortunato also said the ongoing, consensual nature of the sexual relationship between Farr and Father Dunn made him believe that Farr never felt threatened by Father Dunn.
"There was no evidence of a slap or a punch or anything of that nature," Fortunato said. "No evidence that he threatened her with bodily harm."
Noting the emotionally charged nature of the case against Father Dunn - who is one of nine Rhode Island priests facing civil lawsuits from more than 40 people charging them with sexual abuse - Fortunato paraphrased the federal judge in the Timothy McVeigh case, saying: "Courts are for justice. Courts are not for healing."
Richard A. Cappalli, the lawyer representing Farr in her civil lawsuit, said that he was disappointed in Fortunato's ruling, which he said ignored "overwhelming evidence" of the use of force.
"When a man of this person's stature overcomes the resistance of a young virgin, there is no way this girl could have resisted," said Cappalli, who is representing 25 people in their suits against the Diocese of Providence. "If you grew up Catholic in this state, there was no question about the authority of a Catholic priest."
Father Dunn's next trial, on a charge of first-degree sexual assault, is scheduled to begin before Fortunato in Superior Court on Monday.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.