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  Judge Confines Retired Priest to Nursing Home for '82 Rape

By Karen Lee Ziner
Providence Journal-Bulletin
December 21, 1999

WARWICK - Citing the "gross physical problems and mental frailties" of convicted rapist Louis Ward Dunn, a Superior Court judge yesterday sentenced the 79-year-old retired priest to remain at the nursing home where he now lives, and register with the state as a sexual offender.

Judge Stephen Fortunato Jr. imposed a 10-year suspended sentence with probation for Dunn, on one count of first-degree sexual assault for raping a woman in 1982, when she was 21.

The former monsignor must remain at St. Antoine's Home in North Smithfield, and he may not leave the state save for medical treatment, and only with court permission. Dunn has been living there while free on $ 10,000 bail. Indicted by a statewide grand jury in 1996, Dunn was convicted by Fortunato in June 1997.

"I wish, I wish that I could do something" to assuage the victim's emotional pain, Fortunato said, "but I am powerless."

The sentencing at 10:30 a.m. ended a hearing that began Friday morning, and a legal saga that stretched back almost four years including Fortunato's overturning his own decision and granting a motion for a new trial. But the Supreme Court reinstated the conviction this year.

Friends and family of the victim, who had hoped to see Dunn go to prison, immediately called the sentence a travesty.

"I expected him to give him some jail time. That's the only thing that would send a message," the victim's husband said. "I understand he (Dunn) is frail, but there's a long history. There are many more victims, and the Church hierarchy knew about it."

Dunn, helped to a car afterward outside Superior Court, had no comment.

In a statement issued last evening, The Most Rev. Robert E. Mulvee, Roman Catholic Bishop of Providence, said, "Society calls priests to extremely high standards and judges them critically."

"St. Paul tells us that all of us are vessels of clay, reminding us that our strength must come from God. Clay is fragile and shatters easily when it falls. If a priests fails, he shatters like every other person, and people close to him are shattered, too." The bishop repeated his prayer that the victim, and Dunn, "can find healing" and support through the diocesan family.

Dunn's lawyer, C. Leonard O'Brien, said, "In this case, the person to be applauded is Justice Fortunato," who "clearly gave it a great deal of thought."

As for his client, O'Brien said the sentencing "is a very, very confusing situation for Father Dunn. He's happy to be able to go home, but he really needs a great deal of rest. He's been through a lot in this case."

YESTERDAY'S PROCEEDINGS began with Asst. Atty. Gen. David Prior asking the judge to sentence Dunn to serve five years in prison, "despite his frailty," because of the "incalculable harm" to the victim.

With a history of childhood sexual abuse, the woman went to (Dunn) for help for sexual abuse. He became her (surrogate) father, and then he sexually abused her. You can t imagine how she was reliving this, Prior said. She s an emotional basket case.

The woman, who met Dunn as a teenager, has testified that he took advantage of her trust and coerced her into sexual activity, but not intercourse, over a four-year period preceding the rape.

By abusing his priestly authority, Prior said, Dunn has taken her faith away. A prison term would acknowledge that Dunn did something terribly, terribly wrong.

O Brien, Dunn s lawyer, asked the judge to impose a 10-year suspended sentence and home confinement, because a prison sentence would be cruel and unusual.

O Brien also read a statement he helped to write, which he said reflected Dunn s thoughts.

My behavior with the victim was very, very wrong, O Brien read on his client s behalf. Years ago, I apologized. . . . It was a terrible breach of trust. I deeply regret the pain I have caused and beg her forgiveness.

The statement also said Dunn wished the victim to know that I am forever a broken man.

FORTUNATO HEEDED the defense plea for an alternate sentence, based on medical testimony that outlined Dunn s cerebral atrophy, skin cancer, diabetes, esophageal reflux, senile dementia, depression, incontinence, urinary spasm and failure to thrive.

I don t think any fair or reasonable person would say this was manufactured overnight, said Fortunato. And, he added that he knew of nothing in the Constitution that says, Let s give him less appropriate medical care.

Fortunato spent at least 20 minutes outlining the thinking that led to his decision. At one point, noting that Dunn has received considerable support from former parishioners, he said that though some might think otherwise, he has not been influenced by any pressure from the Catholic Church, and that Dunn gets no better treatment because he was a priest.

Fortunato also underscored that the conviction and sentencing are confined to one incident, despite the prosecution s reference to long-time sexual abuse of this victim and Dunn s sexual relations with other women.

(Those relations were cited in testimony in this and another rape case against Dunn, which ended in acquittal.)

Fortunato agreed that the previous sexual encounters between Dunn and the victim were a breach of trust between priest and parishioner, between mentor and student, and a sort of surrogate father and daughter, and that society considers this repugnant. But legally, he said, they amounted to consensual activity.

But regarding the rape, he said, The facts are clear. On June 7, 1982, (Dunn) used force to have sexual intercourse with the victim. He did so despite physical resistance and her protestations.

THE VICTIM, a 38-year-old Burrillville woman whom Fortunato on Friday lauded for her courage in going forward and heartfelt statement on how the rape and her relationship with Dunn had emotionally scarred her, shook her head in apparent disgust when Fortunato announced the sentence.

Then, holding hands with her husband and friends, she walked silently down the hall to the Attorney General Department s office in the courthouse, and remained there.

She s upset, said her husband. That s understandable.

That relationship there was nothing consensual about it. She was a puppet. My wife was a puppet to this guy. . . . He found people who needed to be counseled, and then took advantage, the husband said.

Outside the courthouse, Frank Fitzpatrick of Survivor Connections Inc., said, No, there s no justice, obviously with Judge Fortunato.

If it had been up to him, Fitzpatrick said, I would have given him life in prison.

But Fitzpatrick added that exposing Dunn was a very important thing. That s something that should encourage other people to do the same thing.

You have to remember that Dunn was convicted. He is a convicted felon for first-degree sexual assault.

Kathleen Perri, a friend of the victim who testified in court that she had turned in Dunn to his superiors at the Diocese, called it a sad day.

I think what happened here was a travesty of justice, said Perri. Because prison is not a nice place to be, you don t have to go there because you re frail?

The victim fought a hard fight, Perri added. She is the most courageous person I know.

 
 

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