Court Orders Rape Charge Overturned
Fredette May Face New Trial
By Kathleen A. Shaw
Telegram & Gazette (Massachusetts)
October 12, 2002
The state Appeals Court yesterday overturned the 1995 child rape conviction of the Rev. Joseph A. Fredette, ordering a new trial for the Assumptionist priest who, in the 1970s, oversaw a home for troubled teenage boys in Worcester.
The priest was tried for sexually abusing two 13-year-old boys. He was convicted of molesting one of the boys and found not guilty of molesting the other.
In its ruling, the appellate court faulted the actions of Worcester Superior Court Judge James Donahue, the trial judge, and the special prosecutor, Herbert L. Travers.
Rev. Fredette, 70, who fled to Canada in 1974 after Worcester police issued warrants for his arrest, served time in a state prison after his conviction and was released in 1999. He was ordained by the Catholic order of the Augustinians of the Assumption.
His current whereabouts were not listed in court documents. He was last known to be living at a hermitage he founded in an abandoned village of Jailletville, New Brunswick, before he was extradited to the United States in 1995 to face trial.
Worcester District Attorney John J. Conte said yesterday he is reviewing the court decision and has not decided whether to seek a new trial. One option, he said, is to file for a Supreme Judicial Court review of the ruling, which was issued by appellate court Justices Kenneth Laurence, Gerald Gillerman and David Mills.
Rev. Fredette's lawyer, Alan J. Black, praised the court's decision. "I think there was some extraneous prejudicial material with the jury, and I think it amounted to a big deal," he said yesterday.
Gary M. Melanson, whom Rev. Fredette was convicted of molesting, said yesterday that he was unaware the priest was even seeking to overturn his conviction.
"It's like reopening old wounds ...," he said. Mr. Melanson, who now lives out of state, was in the Worcester County House of Correction at the time of the 1995 trial. He said he has been slowly getting his life back together.
Mr. Melanson, now 46, said he knew of other teenage boys who stayed at the former Come Alive residence on Channing Street who allegedly had been sexually abused by Rev. Fredette, but decided against pursuing criminal charges or filing lawsuits. Mr. Melanson was sent to Come Alive after he ran away from home.
His mother, Beverly Melanson of Charlton, described the ruling as "terrible."
"They could just overturn this after he spent that time in jail and make it look like he did nothing wrong," she said. Mrs. Melanson, who has since become a Catholic, said she is studying to be a Eucharistic minister at St. Joseph Parish in Charlton.
Dana L. Vyska, of Pittsfield, whom Rev. Fredette was acquitted of molesting, said, "I just don't know what to say (about the ruling).
"... I brought him forward then and I would do it again," he added. "I will again assist with a new trial in any way I can.".
Mr. Vyska told the Telegram & Gazette 10 years ago that he was sexually molested by Rev. Fredette at Come Alive. After the priest was acquitted of sexually abusing him, Mr. Vyska filed a civil lawsuit. He said an out-of-court settlement provided him with enough money for a down payment on a house for himself and his family.
Mr. Vyska also was awarded a $120,000 judgment in another civil suit he filed against Rev. Fredette, but did not receive any of the money after the priest maintained he was indigent.
The basis of Rev. Fredette's appeal was a juror who, during the trial, watched a televised interview of Mrs. Melanson.
The justices said that during the jury's deliberations, a note was sent to Judge Donahue in which one of the jurors asked to review Mr. Melanson's testimony. The judge read the entire note into the record, including the information that a juror had seen the televised interview with Mr. Melanson's mother and had discussed it with other jurors.
The appellate court justices said Judge Donahue "did not ask for or provide an opportunity for comment by counsel regarding the note, the content of the interview, the extent of the jurors' knowledge thereof, or the procedure to be followed in light of the note."
When the verdict was returned, the justices said, Rev. Fredette's lawyer at the time requested that the jurors be polled and interviewed individually to determine whether the television interview had any effect on their deliberations. All jurors said it did not influence their decision.
"Although several jurors revealed knowledge of (Mrs. Melanson's) interview and the fact that there had been some discussion of it in the jury room, the defendant's motion for a 'mistrial' was denied without argument or discussion," the appellate court justices said.
In the interview, Mrs. Melanson said that her son had never been in trouble before he met Rev. Fredette.
Mrs. Melanson yesterday stood by that statement. She added that she faulted the state Department of Social Services and the state Department of Youth Services for putting her son at risk by sending him to the Come Alive program.
The justices also ruled that Travers erred in his closing argument at Rev. Fredette's trial.
Testimony during the trial showed that Mr. Melanson did not reveal any abuse by Rev. Fredette before 1992. There also was testimony that Mr. Melanson continued to maintain contact with the priest for some years after he left the Come Alive program, and that he had visited Rev. Fredette in Canada.
"The prosecutor's sweeping proposition that victims of sexual (or any other) abuse commonly delay disclosure of that abuse and maintain relationships with their abuser had not been the subject of testimony at trial, and the record is devoid of anything to support it," the justices said.
A Telegram & Gazette reporter found Rev. Fredette in New Brunswick in 1992. After leaving the United States in 1974, he had stayed for a while in Quebec and then moved to New Brunswick where he served as priest at a nearby parish. Parishioners forced him to leave the church after they discovered that young men were staying in the rectory.
Mr. Conte worked through the U.S. State Department to have Rev. Fredette returned to this country to face trial.
Rev. Fredette was executive director of the Come Alive program from 1970 to 1974. Boys were placed in the program by the state Department of Youth Services.
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