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  Molesters Still Get to Wear Halo of Priesthood
Critics Disagree with the Catholic Church's Policy of Letting Child Abusers Keep Their Collars, Preach Morality and Practice Sacred Duties

By Gregory D. Kesich
Portland Press Herald (Maine)
April 3, 2002

Teresa King almost walked out of St. John the Baptist Church in Winslow two years ago when she recognized the priest preparing to read the gospel, preach a homily and administer the sacrament of Holy Communion.

He was the Rev. Marcel Robitaille, a man who had admitted to repeated sexual molestation of boys in his own family. King knew Robitaille had lost his Belfast parish in 1993, but to her surprise, he remained a priest.

"I saw him enter with all his regalia," said King, 74, who is a daily communicant at her home parish in Fairfield. "I almost left, but I wanted to receive (Communion), and I said to myself, 'It's not him that's giving it to me, it's coming straight from Christ.' "

Maine priests who are no longer trusted around children can have their duties restricted by their bishops. Robitaille, for example, can only celebrate Mass in very limited circumstances. But he and others retain many of their sacred duties, a situation that reflects Catholic doctrine but angers some abuse victims and their advocates. Although some men have left the priesthood voluntarily, no Maine priest has ever been forcibly removed.

Priests under restriction retain the right to wear a Roman collar, to be addressed by the title "father" and to perform important holy functions, such as assisting in the celebration of a Mass or administering Holy Communion. They are expected to pray for the world five times a day, as they vowed on the day they were ordained.

Their relationship with the church - more like a marriage than a job - remains intact, even if they have lost their right to serve a public ministry.

"At ordination, a man becomes a priest," said Sue Bernard, spokeswoman for the Diocese of Portland. "It's not what they do, it's who they are."

Only the church knows how many priests have been accused of sexually molesting children. Still, some names have emerged. They include:

The Revs. John Audibert and Michael Doucette, two men who had admitted to sexually molesting teen-age boys. They were removed from their active ministries last month and remain on paid administrative leave.

The Rev. Raymond Lauzon, who was accused of multiple sexual assaults of children after being assigned a job at a church-run thrift shop because church administrators perceived his behavior as too erratic for parish ministry. Lauzon is reportedly living in Lithuania, teaching religion.

The Rev. Francis Kane, who was removed from St. Bartholomew Church in Cape Elizabeth in 1987 after a teen-age boy said the priest molested him five years earlier. The diocese paid an undisclosed amount to settle the case, and reassigned Kane to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Togus, where he served as chaplain until retiring in 1997.

Some Catholics are angry that the church has retained these priests in positions of moral authority.

Critics say that a priest who violates the trust of his flock should be punished by the church and banished from religious activities. They worry that sexual predators might use the exalted status that priests hold among Catholics to gain access to additional child victims.

Still, removing that potential threat is difficult. Once ordained, bishops cannot laicize - or defrock - a priest. They can only apply to the Vatican for his removal.

The Rev. John Geoghan, a convicted child molester who faces allegations by 130 victims, is believed to be the only laicized priest in the history of the Archdiocese of Boston.

Nationwide, bishops have requested more power in removing priests. The recent laicization of two priests from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles for sexual misconduct suggests there may be more pressure on the church to cut its ties with child-molesting priests.

Victims of sexual abuse and their advocates say a change is overdue.

"As long as they are priests, people are going to think that they are OK," said Cynthia Desrosiers, the Maine coordinator for the Survivors Network of People Abused by Priests. "Priests have a revered status. As long as they are called 'father,' the position demands authority."

The church is loath to break its commitment to men who vow a lifetime of service and make substantial sacrifices to enter the priesthood. Priests, including many who began their seminary education as teen-agers and have never worked outside the church, need support, Bernard said.

Robitaille entered the seminary as a boy. He has never had more than a student's summer job away from the diocese. The church has been his home for more than 50 years.

After attending Holy Cross School in Lewiston, the church sent Robitaille to Canada, where he attended seminary from the age of 14 to 26, earning a degree from the Grand Seminary of Montreal and ordination into the Maine Diocese.

Robitaille, 64, would not comment for this story. However, a friend, Joyce Purnell of Waterville, said Robitaille's years without a parish have been difficult for him.

"I can't condone what he did, but (being a priest) was his life," Purnell said. "That's all he's ever known."

Keeping a priest with a history of sexual misconduct serves a purpose beyond showing compassion to that individual, Bernard said. It protects the community, she said.

"It's not in the bishop's interest to keep these people on board," she said. "It's in the public's interest to keep them where they are, to keep an eye on them. They know what they are doing."

For Robitaille's cousin, Frank Begert, that reasoning rings hollow. The church fought to keep the case secret from the public. Not until church officials lost a court fight and the story hit the news was Marcel Robitaille removed from his parish, St. Francis of Assisi in Belfast.

"Look at the track record they have of keeping an eye on priests so far," Begert said. "I want people to be held accountable."

Robitaille served at 13 churches during a 29-year career that began in 1964. At the same time, he was also sexually abusing his younger brothers, including a pair of twins who were not born when Robitaille left home for the seminary.

In a written response filed by Robitaille as part of a civil suit, Robitaille admitted to having sexual relations with his brothers over a period beginning in the early 1960s and continuing into 1988.

"With regard to my (twin) brothers David and Daniel, I have engaged in sexual contact with each of them after my ordination as a priest in 1964," he wrote. "I cannot, with any degree of specificity or reliability, provide the dates, time and locations of all private meetings with Daniel and David which involved some form of sexual contact. There were a number of such meetings, however, through the years."

Ultimately, the court removed the church as a defendant in the case because the abuse involved family members rather than parishioners. The family reached a confidential settlement with Robitaille.

Today, Robitaille is prohibited from serving as a parish priest. His other duties have been restricted.

The Rev. Paul Plante, the parish priest of St. John the Baptist in Winslow, said Robitaille was treated like any visiting priest when he attended Mass at his church, and was invited behind the altar to assist. Plante, who has known Robitaille since his student days, said that courtesy would no longer be extended.

"At this point, with the kind of public attention we could not" allow him to serve, Plante said. "Whether it's fair or not, we have to go to great lengths to assure the public."

Still, some victims, family members and victims' advocates say restrictions like this are not enough. Anyone in a position of authority - teachers, youth group leaders, coaches or priests - can abuse that role to gain access to child victims.

In fact, members of Robitaille's family said they were taught to obey their priest, and Robitaille took advantage of that to molest them.

"When a priest starts giving you advice, you look up to him," Daniel Robitaille said. "It's sad because he had a way of using that power to entice you."

Begert, 39, described the role Marcel Robitaille played in his family when Begert was a child. "Because he was a priest, he could do no wrong," Begert said. "I was told this. Whatever he does, he has a reason for it. Whatever he said goes."

In 1989, the church responded to complaints about Robitaille by sending him to a residential treatment program. He returned to his Dexter parish three months later and resumed visits with his family.

"He said he was cured and had been trained in counseling and offered to counsel us," said Daniel Robitaille. "We were shocked."

Today, Daniel Robitaille is not teaching his children to revere priests in the same way that his parents taught him.

As for Teresa King of Fairfield, the experience has not shaken her faith.

Catholic teaching says that a priest's hands are consecrated. Even though the priest may be a flawed person, his ordination makes his work holy, she says.

Still, King wishes that men like Robitaille would be removed from their sacred duties.

"Once a priest, always a priest, I suppose," she said. "The only thing that bothered me is that he was still in circulation."

 
 

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