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  Diocese Removes Priests
The Portland Diocese Takes Action on Two Priests and Announces a Policy That Forbids Any Priest with a History of Sexual Misconduct from Serving at Any Parish

By Giselle Goodman and Tom Bells
Portland Press Herald (Maine)
March 10, 2002

Two Maine priests who admitted to sexually abusing minors in the 1970s are gone from their parishes and forbidden to serve at any other, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland announced Saturday.

The diocese placed the Rev. Michael I. Doucette of St. Agatha and the Rev. John L. Audibert of Madawaska on administrative leave Friday, removing them from their parishes. Calling it part of the "purification of the priesthood," Auxiliary Bishop Michael Cote broke the news to Doucette's parish, St. Agatha Parish, just before a Mass on Saturday.

He was expected to do the same today at Audibert's parish, St. Thomas Aquinas. Cote also announced a new diocesan policy that forbids any priest with a history of sexual misconduct from serving at any parish.

The decision comes at a time of mounting pressure on the Catholic Church to deal with priests who have been accused of sexually molesting minors. The Portland diocese announced on Feb. 10 that it would publicly name priests accused of sexual misconduct who were still active in the ministry.

Doucette and Audibert were identified as the only two active priests in Maine with a history of sexual misconduct. The two informed parishioners of their past behaviors in statements from their pulpits. Despite the announcements, many parishioners stood by the priests, and their parish councils agreed that they should continue to serve.

But the councils were overruled by Bishop Joseph Gerry, who heads the diocese.

After the Mass on Saturday, many parishioners kept their heads down as they walked past a half-dozen television and newspaper reporters who had been waiting outside. Most parishioners said they did not want to comment. A sheriff's deputy arrived after some parishioners complained that reporters were asking questions too aggressively.

Parishioners who did speak offered mixed views. Several said that they had initially supported Doucette, but that their opinions changed after they heard the allegations last week by a Caribou man, who said Doucette had exposed himself to him in the 1980s, when he was 17 or 18 years old.

The other sexual misconduct involving Doucette occurred in the 1970s.

All the media attention, plus the uncertainty and debate about the priests' futures, had become a worrisome and embarrassing distraction, parishioners said, and the bishop's decision would provide some closure that will allow the parish to return to normal.

"It's a relief," said Roger Albert, 75, of Frenchville, after he walked out of the church at the end of Communion. "It's a relief it's over."

Bernie and Gerry Michaud of St. Agatha said they love listening to Father Mike's wise and literate homilies and they wish he could have remained.

"We wish he could have stayed for us," Bernie Michaud said. "It's sad."

"Very, very sad," Gerry Michaud added.

Camille Ouellette, 64, of St. Agatha, said she had complete trust in Gerry to make the right decision, even though she loves Doucette. "We support Father Mike all the way," she said. "He'll continue to be in our prayers."

Doucette's victims, meanwhile, say they are not satisfied. Andrew Levesque and 37-year-old David Gagnon, who says Doucette abused him when he was assigned to a parish in Biddeford 22 years ago, said placing the priests on administrative leave is not enough.

"He should be defrocked," said Gagnon, formerly of Old Orchard Beach and now a resident of Ottawa. "He's been placed on administrative leave, which insinuates he could come back. Ultimately, one could deduce that he is being put out to pasture and maybe they'll let him back later."

He said the action taken by the diocese to remove Doucette from the pulpit comes too late.

"This should have been done 11 years ago, when I came forward," he said. "How many more survivors could we have prevented from being survivors if we would have removed them 11 years ago?"

Audibert and Doucette told their parishioners that they had been removed from parishes a decade ago. They said they were sent to a residential treatment center after the diocese paid cash settlements to two men who said they had been sexually abused as children in separate incidents by the priests in the 1970s.

Audibert's revelations did not surprise many because his victim had spoken out publicly in 1993. However, Doucette's announcement came as a shock to parishioners because the allegations against him had never been made public.

Despite this, members of both congregations supported their priests, as the diocese encouraged other victims to come forward. The parish councils of St. Agatha and Madawaska recommended that both Audibert and Doucette be allowed to remain in their jobs.

But in late February, the diocese received a letter from Levesque, of Caribou, who alleged that Doucette exposed himself and made repeated sexual advances in the 1980s, when Levesque was a teen-ager.

In a letter to parishioners, Bishop Gerry said the new allegation "now makes it impossible in my mind for both Fr. Mike and Fr. John to minister to the public and maintain public trust."

He said it is important that parishioners have absolute confidence in their pastors; thus, he decided to remove the two priests against the wishes of the parish councils. Interim pastors will serve at the northern Maine churches until permanent replacements are found.

Julie Turgeon, a parishioner in St. Agatha, said she will miss Doucette greatly, but added that Gerry's letter made a good case for removal.

"I don't think anybody will question his judgment," she said.

Cote informed the two priests Friday about Gerry's decision. While the two men did not embrace the decision, Cote said, they understood the reasoning behind it.

"It's clear the parishioners love these two priests," he said in an interview. "It was a tragic thing to have to do, but there was no choice in the end."

Cote told the St. Agatha Parish Council on Saturday afternoon, right before the 4:30 p.m. Mass. At the midpoint of the Mass, prior to Communion, he read Gerry's letter to the parish.

He read the long letter with a clear voice and deliberate manner. Parishioners listened in silence. Some wept. When Cote finished, the congregation stood and Cote led them in a recital of the creed of the Roman Catholic Church.

Because the Mass was previously scheduled to be part of the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the local chapter of the Knights of Columbus, the church was filled to capacity with hundreds of people, many from outside the parish.

It remains unclear how many inactive or deceased priests there are in Maine who have been accused of the sexual abuse of minors.

The Portland diocese at first refused to reveal allegations of abuse against inactive or deceased priests, but has since agreed to turn over that information to Stephanie Anderson, the Cumberland County district attorney.

Anderson said she has been contacted by eight to 10 people who say they are victims of sexual abuse by a priest. Cynthia Desrosiers, Maine coordinator of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said she knows of 27 victims in the state of Maine.

She encourages other victims to report abuse to law enforcement officials, not the diocese, "because this is a crime," Desrosiers said. "And the Catholic Church needs to get in their head that this is a crime and they need to be held accountable."

Maine Attorney General Steven Rowe said his office will join Anderson and the state's seven other district attorneys in determining how to handle allegations of child sexual abuse by inactive priests. Anderson has said she wants to prosecute cases that fall within the statute of limitations.

The diocese, meanwhile, said it is taking further steps to remove from the ministry priests accused of sexual misconduct.

In his letter to his "brothers and sisters in Christ," Gerry said given the events of the last month, "I have now decided that there will be no public ministry in the future for any priest with a credible allegation of sexual abuse of a minor or who has acknowledged sexual contact with a minor."

He said when victims come forward, the church will pay for counseling with a licensed therapist of their choice without requiring proof of the allegation.

Despite the announcement, Gagnon said he will not be satisfied until the bishop steps down and the church implements a policy of zero tolerance.

"The only reason they're doing this is because they are being forced to, not because they want to," he said. "All this has been about damage control and about covering their backsides. That's not good enough. Catholics in Maine deserve better."

 
 

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