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  Six Priests to Face Tribunals

Telegram & Gazette (Massachusetts)
March 7, 2003

- Monsignor F. Stephen Pedone said yesterday the Worcester Catholic Diocese is getting ready to move ahead with church trials of six men removed from ministry last year because of allegations of sexual misconduct.

A seventh priest, the Rev. Joseph A. Coonan, cannot be tried in the church court because the alleged events occurred before he was ordained a priest.

"It's a tough one," Monsignor Pedone said. "In his case these are not canonical crimes so he cannot be tried before the church court. But the allegations made against him have affected his ability to effectively minister," the monsignor said.

Monsignor Pedone, who is judicial vicar for canonical affairs, said the bishop has other means of dealing with the situation without putting him before the church court, he said. That could include keeping him removed from active ministry.

The situation is not unique to Worcester, he said. He has spoken with one bishop elsewhere in the country who ordained a priest and one month later allegations surfaced that he had sexually abused someone 20 years earlier.

Bishop Daniel P. Reilly removed Rev. Coonan in August after allegations surfaced from 15 men of sexual misconduct that allegedly happened during the 1970s when he was a counselor and public school teacher in Oxford. No allegations have been made that incidents happened after his ordination in 1989.

Priests who are subject to the church tribunal are the Rev. Lee F. Bartlett, the Rev. John J. Bagley, the Rev. Gerard P. Walsh, the Rev. Peter J. Inzerillo, the Rev. Chester J. Devlin and the Rev. Raymond P. Messier.

"Justice delayed is justice denied," Monsignor Pedone said, noting this goes for the accused priests and the alleged victims. The priests have been "hanging in limbo" for some time and the victims are also waiting for this process to begin, he added.

The tribunals operate much like the U.S. Supreme Court, he said. The church does not have open court sessions with oral arguments. The cases are made by the accused priest and the victim through written documentation, he said.

The tribunals are conducted according to canon law, which is the law that governs the Roman Catholic Church. The church trials of accused priests involve a specific violation of the sixth commandment, which in the Catholic list of Ten Commandments involves improper sexual activity. Accused priests are still subject to the criminal and civil law of the state, the monsignor said.

If the tribunal finds that a priest has violated canon law, it can recommend to the Vatican that he be defrocked.

The tribunal will contact those victims who have made allegations known to the bishop's office or the diocesan Office for Healing and Prevention. Any victims who have not made such reports can still contact those offices if they want to be involved in the church tribunal, he said.

Monsignor Pedone said the diocese wants to move as quickly as it can with the tribunals but no startup date has been officially set. The bishops still need to decide whether they will have a "centralized" tribunal for Massachusetts, he said. A proposal has been made to have another centralized court in New Hampshire to cover Northern New England, he said.

"We want to make sure that a Worcester judge does not judge the case of a Worcester priest in order to maintain complete objectivity," he said. The bishops want to centralize the tribunals so they have enough people available to move judges around.

Pope John Paul II and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican have approved the use of lay men and women who have degrees in canon law on these tribunals. Sister Mary Lou Walsh of the Sisters of Notre Dame is a judge for the Worcester diocese. Monsignor Pedone said the Vatican has indicated its willingness to use lay people but the diocese still must obtain a dispensation to allow for them to serve.

Monsignor Pedone recently attended a meeting of canon lawyers from throughout the country in Washington, D.C., where they got firsthand information from the Vatican on how to conduct the tribunals.

Two men have alleged that Rev. Bartlett, of St. Leo's Parish in Leominster, sexually abused them while they were in their early teens.

Rev. Bagley, who was removed from his pastorship at St. Mary's Parish in Grafton last year, has been accused of sexual misconduct with a minor that allegedly occurred while the priest was assigned to Christ the King Parish in Worcester in 1967.

Rev. Walsh was removed from his position as a Catholic chaplain of the Massachusetts State Police after state police were notified that he allegedly molested a boy when he was assigned to Our Lady of the Lake Parish in the Whalom district of Leominster. He was also removed from his parish assignment at St. Roch Church in Oxford.

Rev. Inzerillo, of St. Leo's Parish in Leominster, has been named in a civil lawsuit as someone who allegedly sexually molested a 19-year-old man.

Rev. Devlin, who headed the Respect Life office for the Catholic Diocese of Worcester, was removed from his assignment at St. Bernadette Parish in Northboro because of an allegation of sexual misconduct with a minor in the 1980s.

Rev. Messier was removed as pastor of St. Peter's Parish in Petersham and of St. Francis of Assisi in Athol after charges of sexual misconduct were made.

 
 

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