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  Photos, Victim Confront Diocese, but Blessed Be the Art of Denial
Quickread Starts Here

By Bill Nemitz
Portland Press Herald (Maine)
May 15, 2002

The two photographs, published by a newspaper halfway around the world, are the last thing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland wants to see. They show the Rev. Raymond Lauzon - the troublesome priest living abroad under strict orders that he not have contact with children - standing at altars in Lithuania surrounded by young girls and boys.

But, as usual, there's an explanation. The diocese, which still retains control over Lauzon nine years after it granted him permission to pack up his sordid past and move to a Lithuanian monastery, says that however bad they might look, there's nothing wrong with those pictures.

"It appears from what you're telling me that Father Lauzon did follow (diocese) instructions at the time, which was no unsupervised contact with children," spokeswoman Sue Bernard said Tuesday after listening to a detailed description of the photos that appeared late last month in the Lithuanian daily newspaper Lietuvos Rytas.

So much for appearances. Now if Bishop Joseph Gerry and the rest of his hierarchy could only answer a couple of other nagging questions:

Why, if they refuse to concede once and for all that Lauzon is a pedophile, have diocese officials grown increasingly worried in recent years about letting him near children - to the point where he now can have "no public ministry" whatsoever?

And how could they publicly apologize to one of Lauzon's victims this week "for all that you and your family have suffered," yet in the next breath hold fast to Lauzon's claim that he never did anything wrong?

The only logical answer, in this ever-deepening sea of contradictions, is that there is no logical answer. The harder the diocese tries to have it both ways with Lauzon - in effect, offering an act of contrition minus the full confession - the clearer it becomes that the lawyers, not the bishops, still decide what Lauzon's victims will and will not hear.

What's more, if the recent report by Lietuvos Rytas (Lithuania Daily) is any indication, cracks have begun to appear in the diocese's oft-repeated insistence that Lauzon lives under tight control at a Franciscan monastery in Kretinga, Lithuania.

In addition to the photographs, the priest in charge of the monastery told a reporter he has never talked to Lauzon about his life back in Maine.

Nor, for that matter, has anyone apparently spoken to Lauzon about anything lately.

"He's still there," said Gintautas Alksninis, the newspaper's Washington correspondent who just returned from Lithuania. "But he's hidden like Osama bin Laden these days."

Letter not so apologetic

The Lietuvos Rytas photos are the latest echoes from a case that arose first as a criminal investigation here in the 1980s - Lauzon served four months for witness tampering after charges of gross sexual misconduct were dropped in a plea bargain. The case resurfaced as a series of civil lawsuits in the 1990s - the church settled all of them. And now it has arisen as a well-documented example of how the Diocese of Portland once dealt with those who presented themselves as its victims - long before apologies were in order.

The Lithuanian newspaper began looking into Lauzon's activities there shortly after Anthony Matthews, 34, one of several young men who say Lauzon repeatedly molested them as boys while he ran a church-sponsored thrift shop in Portland's Old Port during the 1970s and 1980s, went public in late March with his complaint that the diocese had never fulfilled promises it made to him six years ago.

Specifically, Matthews said the diocese had failed to meet with him, as required by an out-of-court settlement he signed in 1995, so he could tell them face to face about how Lauzon repeatedly molested him and his four brothers as they passed through early adolescence.

At the same time, Matthews wanted to tell Bishop Gerry how it felt to open the court file and see handwritten notes referring to Matthews as a "vindictive queer." The Rev. Joseph Ford, who was chancellor of the diocese when he took the notes in 1984, now says he was simply writing down what others were telling him.

Matthews finally got his meeting two weeks ago. Sitting alone with Gerry and Auxiliary Bishop Michael Cote - a friend who accompanied Matthews was asked to wait in the lobby - Matthews demanded that the bishops write a letter publicly apologizing for what Lauzon did to him and his brothers and acknowledging for the first time that Lauzon is in fact a pedophile.

The letter, signed by both bishops, arrived Monday.

Matthews was not impressed.

"It falls 98 percent short of my expectations," he said, staring dejectedly at the two-page document. "If not 100 percent."

The letter opens by commending Matthews for the "courage to come and share your pain with us." "Anthony," the bishops continue, "please allow us to express to you our profound sorrow for all that you and your family have suffered and to apologize for it."

They go on to offer to meet with Matthews' parents and to provide him access to a new "assistance ministry to those suffering the pain of abuse." They even invite him to participate in soon-to-be-announced support groups.

Then the tone shifts:

"You expressed concern about Father Lauzon. You have stated under oath that he abused you; in recent years, others have made the same claim. As you know, he has denied under oath any wrongdoing. We are not Solomon and thus we cannot state, as you request, that he is a pedophile."

In other words, on the crucial question of whose story they believe and whose they don't, the bishops once again take a pass.

The more he pored over that paragraph this week, the more Matthews found himself stuck on the not-so-subtle implication that someone is lying - and as far as the church is concerned, there's still a 50-50 chance it's Matthews.

"Apology," he finally said. "Apology for what?"

Dropped out of sight

The bishops, having muddled through their apology for what Lauzon may or may not have done in the first place, then run headlong into the recent reports out of Lithuania.

"We can . . . say that based on your statements and the statements of others, Father Lauzon has been prohibited from public ministry and is prohibited from any unsupervised contact with minors, and is living in a monastery whose superiors are fully aware of these restrictions," they write.

That's not to say, however, that Lauzon hasn't crossed paths with children.

Both photos published last month in Lietuvos Rytas, which according to correspondent Alksninis were taken within the past three to five years and provided to the newspaper by residents of Kretinga, show Lauzon standing in full vestments at the altar with several other priests. Both also show dozens of children, some only a few feet away, participating in the services.

The caption under one photo, translated by Alksninis, reads, "The priest R. Lauzon, who is involved in the pedophilia scandal in the United States, especially liked to participate with children and in children-and-youth Masses in Kretinga."

Included in the newspaper's report is a photo of Father Benediktas, identified by Alksninis as the monastery's superior. According to the caption beneath it, Benediktas told the newspaper he "has never discussed (Lauzon's) past with him."

The lengthy story, according to Alksninis, reports no allegations of sexual abuse against Lauzon since he arrived in Lithuania in 1993. It does, however, document how he circulated freely among his congregation - children included - until three years ago, when he suddenly dropped from sight.

"There were rumors that he was sick, or that he had been transferred to another monastery," Alksninis said.

Then last fall, the newspaper reported, the monastery in Kretinga announced that Lauzon's stay there had ended and he was returning to the United States. Inexplicably, that never happened.

"He appeared at the Easter service - that was in late March," Alksninis said. "People were very surprised to see him."

Murky decade overseas

Diocese spokeswoman Bernard, after conferring for much of Tuesday afternoon with other chancery officials, said it all makes perfect sense if you follow the diocese's chronology:

From 1993-95, Bernard said, Lauzon was under no restrictions whatsoever because as far as church officials here were concerned, there was insufficient evidence to support claims by Matthews and others that Lauzon had molested them.

That changed in 1995, she said, when "other victims came forward." (Coincidentally, that is the year Matthews and his brothers filed their lawsuit.)

"In 1995, Father Lauzon was told by letter that he should have no unsupervised public ministry and no unsupervised contact with children," Bernard said.

Assuming the photos published by Lietuvos Rytas were taken during that period, she noted, it's clear that both Lauzon's ministry and his contact with the children is supervised. "So that's good news," Bernard said.

The next change came in 2000, Bernard said, when the Diocese of Portland informed Lauzon and the monastery that he could have "no public ministry" and thus no contact whatsoever with children.

Why the tighter restrictions?

That's hard to say.

Bernard, whose tenure with the diocese dates back only to last December, offered this in the way of explanation: "Maybe we were not clear enough before that."

To which Matthews would humbly respond that the diocese, thanks to its ever-vigilant lawyers, has never appeared murkier.

He's had his meeting with the bishops, but all he can remember is Bishop Gerry chuckling at what Matthews thought were the most inappropriate moments.

He has his letter of apology, but nowhere does it include any reference to the offense.

And now he has a new image of Lauzon in faraway Lithuania, but the priest Matthews blames for making his life hell on earth is once again surrounded by children.

"It feels like they're trying to knock the wind out of me," Matthews said, his voice shaking. "But they never will."

 
 

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