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  Church Owes Man Apology, Not Blessing

By Bill Nemitz
Portland Press Herald (Maine)
May 5, 2002

The call came one day after Anthony Matthews took his battle with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland to its front doorstep on Ocean Avenue - insisting while the television news cameras rolled that the church owed him a face-to-face apology for the horrors it inflicted on him and his family.

"It was Sister Rita Mae (Bissonette) who called on Wednesday," Matthews said. "She told me, 'Bishop Cote and Bishop Gerry would like to know if you'd like to come in Thursday at 1:30.' And I said fine."

And so, at long last, the diocese kept at least one promise it made when it settled with Matthews seven years ago - that he could meet with the bishop and explain to him in detail how the Rev. Raymond Lauzon turned his and his brothers' childhoods into a living hell.

But hold the congratulations, please. Nowhere in his 45-minute sit-down, from the opening handshakes to the final "God blesses," did Matthews get what he still wants - and needs - the most.

"I told them I want a public apology for the way they handled our case," Matthews said. "And I wanted an admission of Father Lauzon's pedophilia for the first time publicly."

And?

"Bishop Gerry told me, 'I will write a letter over the next week. Why don't you get back to me in a week and I will let you read it?,' " Matthews said. "And when I asked if it would contain those two items, he said, 'I don't know right now . . . I can't tell you.' "

In other words, the more things change in this ever-unfolding scandal, the more they seem to stay the same.

Matthews' story, while one of dozens about vulnerable young boys used by demented priests as their sexual playthings, is one of the few that comes with a thick court file. The paper trail, examined in this column five weeks ago, show how church leaders put politics above morality in weighing the possibility of an embarrassing court trial, how they fretted over Lauzon's future despite a past filled with one foul-mouthed failure after another, how one high-ranking diocesan priest's handwritten notes refer to Anthony Matthews as a "vindictive queer."

In short, if anyone deserves a direct apology, it is this 34-year-old man and his five brothers - all of whom came to the diocese at one point or another to say Lauzon had raped them repeatedly as they grew from boys to young men. And if Maine's two bishops thought Thursday's meeting would make Matthews go away and leave them alone, they've got a lot to learn about victims of sexual assault.

Immediately after accepting the diocese's invitation last week, Matthews called Sumner Lipman, an Augusta attorney who represents a number of church victims. Lipman wasn't wild about the idea of meeting, but told Matthews that if he went ahead with it, he should at least bring a witness.

"So I brought my friend Joe," Matthews said. "But when Bishop Gerry came out and I said, 'I'd like Joe to come with me,' he said, 'I'd really like to have a few minutes alone with just you.' "

Joe stayed behind. Gerry, on the other hand, picked up reinforcements: As they approached Gerry's office, Matthews found himself being introduced to Auxiliary Bishop Michael Cote, who followed them inside.

Was Matthews scared?

"No, I wasn't scared," he said. "But I was very anxious."

Still, he'd come to speak his piece - and that's what he did. He told them how Lauzon, who now lives in a Lithuanian monastery, had raped him and his brothers. He told them how it felt to see the priest walk away from a gross sexual misconduct indictment in exchange for a guilty plea to witness tampering. He told them how it felt, when he and his brothers filed their lawsuit, to be viewed not as the victims of a sick man, but rather as conniving little liars who could be silenced if the price was right.

He told them, at times through his tears, that they should be ashamed of themselves.

And what did the bishops say?

"Not much," replied Matthews, who figures he did 90 percent of the talking. "Bishop Gerry had this big smile and he chuckled a lot throughout our conversation. I don't know if it was kind of a nervous thing, but I just found it inappropriate."

And Bishop Cote?

"He sat there very quiet," Matthews said. "He seemed very sad, very solemn."

When Gerry did speak, Matthews had trouble believing what he heard.

"He said he didn't know about any of this," Matthews said. "He said this was the first time he'd ever heard any of the details about Father Lauzon. And I said, 'How could that be? You were the bishop of Portland when the church attorneys dragged our family through the mud in the 1990s. Did you just let your attorneys handle it?' "

Matthews, still unable to believe it, shook his head.

"He said, 'Yes, our attorneys handled all of that.' "

Matthews left the meeting as angry as when he arrived - perhaps even angrier. When Gerry told him, "You're an intelligent man," Matthews saw it not as a compliment but rather as a long-overdue revelation for Maine's Catholic prelate. And when both bishops showered him with "lots of 'God blesses,' " he found himself longing instead for one simple "We're sorry."

Sue Bernard, spokeswoman for the diocese, said Friday that she knows very little about what went on in the meeting with Matthews. Nor, she said, is she aware of any letter or public statement that might come out of it.

But if Gerry and, for that matter, Cote still think last week's chat was just between them and Anthony Matthews (thanks for coming, Joe . . .), they are sorely mistaken.

And if Gerry thinks last Sunday's catch-all letter of apology, published as a paid advertisement in this newspaper, is the same as apologizing to each victim by name, then he still doesn't get it: Apologies ring true only when they render us truly vulnerable.

"That ad is why I did my protest," said Matthews, who knows all about vulnerability. "His letter didn't say anything."

He will wait this week. Then he will go see what, if anything, the bishops are willing to say.

"I told them I want those two things - a public apology and an admission," Matthews said. "I will not take anything less."

We can only hope Gerry heard him. Contrary to what his attorneys may say, it's the only thing left for Maine's bishop to do.

 
 

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