Case May Have International Reach
By Tom Mashberg
February 23, 2002
In the first archdiocese molestation case with international implications, at least 20 alleged victims of a former Bellingham priest who has gone underground in Canada in recent days are pursuing criminal charges against the cleric.
The case of the Rev. Paul M. Desilets, 79, who is believed to be living in Rigaud, Quebec, has become one of the most promising potential prosecutions to arise from the vast pedophilia scandal buffeting the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.
"We have talked to quite a few victims and consider this a very active investigation," said Bellingham Sgt. Detective Richard A. Perry, who is spearheading the probe in conjunction with state police. "A significant number of people have made very credible allegations."
Since early February, a group of former altar boys and other male plaintiffs have stepped forward to say Desilets terrorized them for a decade while he was associate pastor at the Assumption Parish in Bellingham between 1974 and 1984.
They say the priest routinely isolated them from other boys and aggressively fondled their genitals under their clothes or cassocks.
"What he did was really devastating to a young man's life," said Scott D. Coon, 33, a Maine auto worker who grew up in Bellingham and says he was assaulted by Desilets continually from 1978 to 1984. "It destroys your childhood. I want him to be prosecuted to the fullest possible extent of the law." Coon is one of 13 plaintiffs who have already filed civil actions against Desilets and the Archdiocese of Boston in Suffolk County Superior Court, according to their lawyer, Jeffrey A. Newman. Newman said five new plaintiffs would be joining in a separate filing expected this week, and three others are "weighing coming forward."
"Some of the victims have had significant psychological issues, including institutionalization," he said. "Several were damaged to a very severe degree." Asked about the accusations three weeks ago, Desilets said, "I do not remember anything like that." He said he recalled the names of some of his accusers, but dismissed their allegations as "exaggerations." Later in the same interview, he asked a reporter, "Isn't there a statute of limitations?"
In a subsequent interview with The Woonsocket Call, Desilets asserted "Alzheimer's was creeping up," impairing his memories. Since then, according to Canadian media reports, he has disconnected his home telephone, moved to a new location in Quebec, and asked aides to refer all calls to his clerical supervisors.
The Desilets case is important on several counts, investigators and lawyers for the plaintiffs say.
First, it is one of the few cases to emerge amid the scandals of recent weeks in which criminal prosecution is still an option, because Desilets left the U.S. soon after his alleged crimes took place.
Once Desilets went abroad - to Canada, where he was raised, and ordained as a priest by the order of the Clerics of Saint Viator in 1963 - the statute of limitations on any crimes he might have committed while in the U.S. was frozen. Under laws in existence in 1984, what his accusers allege happened constitutes indecent assault and battery on a child, attorneys say.
In 1984, the statute of limitations on that crime was six years, meaning that any acts committed by Desilets from 1978 to 1984 remain open to prosecution. Newman said according to his clients, Desilets was abusive during those years. A second key aspect of the Desilets case is that it may have to involve Canadian authorities. If Desilets is summoned to court, either criminally or civilly, but refuses to appear, Massachusetts law enforcement officials would have to apply for his extradition.
Further, while there are no allegations that Desilets abused children in Canada, there are clear indications the Archdiocese of Boston knew he was an abuse problem during his time in Bellingham. Records show Desilets was put on "leave of absence" in 1980, a frequent designation for priests being sent to "therapy centers" because of abuse allegations.
Yet there are no indications that Canadian authorities were warned of Desilets' alleged proclivities once the priest completed his assignment at Assumption Parish. Since accusations against Desilets were first reported in the Herald three weeks ago, Canadian reporters have begun to investigate his career as a priest at Our Lady of Lourdes shrine in Rigaud and at the Classical College in Cornwall, Ontario, run by the Viator clerics.
"One of the most egregious aspects here," Newman said, "is that the Archdiocese of Boston allowed a known pedophile to move on to another country, where it is quite possible that he continued to engage in his harmful activities."
A third aspect of the Desilets case is that his alleged crimes may involve not one but two district attorneys. Bellingham was under the jurisdiction of Norfolk County until 1980, and has been under Worcester County since then. William R. Keating, now Norfolk DA, has already sought grand jury subpoenas in cases of priests who operated in his county. Newman says Norfolk stands ready to probe any allegations against Desilets that remain live under state law.
Meanwhile, Worcester County DA John J. Conte has given the Archdiocese of Boston until Feb. 26 to provide internal records on Desilets and other suspect priests. "Father Desilets doesn't have a lot of choices," Newman said. "He can come forward or become a fugitive. That would raise headlines in Canada. The archdiocese could face an international incident."
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