Telling on Priest Not Easy
Alleged Victim Wants to Protect Today's Kids
By Dianne Williamson
Sunday Telegram (Massachusetts)
March 17, 2002
Joseph P. Cote sat somberly at a red-checkered booth in a New Hampshire steakhouse. He toyed with his cigarettes and a glass of iced tea. He politely waved away a waiter about to recite the daily specials.
"You have to understand that it's very difficult for me to come forward," Mr. Cote said softly, his words measured and his emotions guarded. "I never really intended to. But with all that's going on ... So many other people are willing to step forward, it's given me the strength to do it, too."
Last week, Mr. Cote called the Catholic Diocese of Worcester to report that as an altar boy he had been sexually abused by the Rev. Lee F. Bartlett, the popular and high-profile pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus parish on Cambridge Street in Worcester. Beginning in 1977, when he was 13, he said, he spent many weekends with Father Bartlett and other boys at the priest's Cape Cod ranch in Eastham, where the pastor would ply them with liquor and show pornographic movies on his 8 mm projector.
On at least three occasions, Father Bartlett took Mr. Cote into his bedroom and sexually molested him, he said. The priest also organized an event dubbed "the Greek Olympics," which involved the boys running naked through the neighborhood at night, according to Mr. Cote.
Mr. Cote said he reported his allegations on Thursday in a phone call to the Rev. Rocco Piccolomini, vicar for priests, who has requested a meeting with Mr. Cote. Meanwhile, a diocesan spokesman said Father Bartlett has taken a leave from his pastorship.
"The person who called was invited to come in and present his allegations," said spokesman Raymond L. Delisle. "The report will be forwarded to the district attorney's office for appropriate action."
Mr. Delisle said he did not know whether the complaint was the first the diocese had received regarding Father Bartlett, or whether the priest's name was among those that the diocese agreed to forward to the district attorney's office for possible prosecution.
Father Bartlett, 57, did not respond to requests for a comment last week, and his recorded message at the rectory said he was "no longer available" to return phone calls. He has been pastor of the blue-collar Sacred Heart parish since 1985. He is also a member of the Worcester Redevelopment Authority and a former member of the city's Citizen's Advisory Council.
Mr. Cote, 38, is president of a school supply distributorship in New Hampshire. He is married and has three children. In an interview last week in Portsmouth, N.H., he said part of the reason he came forward now is because one of his children is the same age he was when the alleged abuse began.
Mr. Cote was raised in Leominster and was attending St. Leo's Elementary School in the 1970s when Father Bartlett joined the parish. He said the priest befriended his family and was a frequent dinner guest at their home.
When Mr. Cote became an altar boy, the priest took special interest in him and would single him out to serve at funerals and other church events that occurred during school hours.
He said Father Bartlett would invite about a half-dozen young boys to the rectory, where they would watch Monty Python movies and drink beer and mixed drinks. On weekends, he began bringing the boys to his home in Eastham, where he would set up a projector in the living room and show X-rated movies, Mr. Cote said.
While the other boys would sleep on the floor in the living room, Mr. Cote said, Father Bartlett would demand that the boy sleep with him in his bed.
"At some point, he began to fondle me," Mr. Cote said. He said the priest also performed oral sex. "This happened at least three times," Mr. Cote said. "It could have been more. I'm just not sure."
He said the priest also took Mr. Cote and another boy to an X-rated drive-in and encouraged the boy to masturbate in the back seat. He said he visited the priest in Eastham about two dozen times.
His relationship with the priest ended the summer after Mr. Cote's junior year at St. Bernard's Central Catholic High School in Fitchburg, when Father Bartlett took Mr. Cote and a friend on a 10-day trip to Europe, he said. One night, Father Bartlett made a sexual advance at Mr. Cote, who was then 16, he said.
"I resisted, and that was pretty much the end of our relationship," Mr. Cote said. He said he called the priest about three years later and warned him against abusing other boys.
He told his mother about the alleged abuse when he was 24 as she was planning to invite the priest to a family function, he said. Shortly after, he sought counseling in Fitchburg. He stopped attending church, and no longer considers himself a Catholic.
"Mostly, though, I haven't allowed this to have an effect on my life," Mr. Cote said, his eyes filled with tears. "I know it wasn't my fault. This man was a priest, and we were just kids. Priests could pretty much walk on water."
Mr. Cote said he never reported his allegations because he assumed no one would believe him. That assumption changed recently as the Catholic Church has been forced to confront increasing evidence of widespread pedophilia and sexual abuse within the priesthood.
Two weeks ago, Mr. Cote's older brother, Brian Cote, said he called Father Bartlett and angrily confronted him about the alleged abuse. He said the priest neither acknowledged nor denied the allegations, but told him he was thinking about taking a leave of absence.
"He said he was going to try to seek help, and he said he was going to meet with the bishop and see what the bishop thought he should do," according to Brian Cote.
Word of the allegations spread quickly last week through the tight-knit parish, where Father Bartlett has been credited with rejuvenating a 123-year-old church once plagued by money woes and dwindling attendance.
"We're just so devastated, but we're all supporting him," said one longtime parishioner who asked that her name not be used. "No matter what happens, we love him, and we'll continue to pray for him. This will make our faith even stronger. We've all done wrong, and the past is the past. We have a forgiving God."
Joseph Cote is not as forgiving. But he said he has no plans to file a civil lawsuit and is aware that the statute of limitations for possible criminal prosecution has expired. He said he makes a comfortable living, and any settlement he seeks would not be for financial gain.
"Everyone has their reasons for coming forward, but I'm not after any money," he said. "I've wondered all these years if other children have been victimized. ... I can't control what happened in the past. But I can try and see that this man is brought into the open. The church always says, 'Love the sinner, hate the sin.' To me, they're one and the same."
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