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  Is Priest's Private Life Fair Game for Public?
Despite the Fallout from the Sex-Abuse Scandal, the Church Says Some Matters Call for Internal Discipline

By Gregory D. Kesich
Portland Press Herald (Maine)
September 10, 2003

The identification of a Catholic priest who participated in a now-defunct Web site for gay clergymen is raising questions about what aspects of a priest's private life should be made public, in light of the sexual-abuse scandal that has rocked the church.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland confirmed this week that the Rev. Normand Richard of the Holy Family Parish in Old Town is the third Maine priest known to have sent e-mails to the St. Sebastian's Angels Web site. The site featured pornographic pictures and an e-mail exchange in which priests wrote about their sexual experiences.

Richard has not been accused of any crime. Although his behavior violated a priest's ethics, the diocese says he will not face any further investigation or discipline for his participation in the Web site. The site was shut down in 2000.

Richard was identified by Paul Kendrick, co-founder of the Maine chapter of Voice of the Faithful, a group that is working toward church reform. The group is calling for Richard's removal from the priesthood. Richard was unavailable for comment because he was away on vacation, according to the church secretary.

Observers say cases like Richard's are the inevitable result of the sexual-abuse scandal that has touched churches in nearly every state. Now that the sexual behavior of some priests has been exposed, questions will be raised about many others, said Richard Sipe, a psychologist and former Benedictine monk who has written four books on the issue of celibacy and the priesthood.

Because the church claimed for centuries that all priests are celibate, Sipe said, they were assumed to pose no risk of sexual misconduct, by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Now that a relatively small number of priests have been exposed violating that trust by exploiting children, there is legitimate public interest about the sex life of other members of the clergy, Sipe said.

"Celibacy is no longer presumed, it has to be proven," Sipe said. "Once the door has been opened, where does it stop? All the questions that were not asked in the past are now open for discussion."

Kendrick said Richard's behavior identifies him as a risk to children, and that the sexual language Richard used on the Web site was disturbing. He said Richard's involvement proves that he had some dangerous connections: The other two Maine priests involved in the site, the Rev. John Harris and the Rev. Antonin Caron, have been disciplined for alleged sexual misconduct with children.

"If Richard was a day-care operator and it became known that he is involved in a pornographic Web site and his two partners both have links to the sexual abuse of kids, no one would bring their child there the next day," Kendrick said. "I think kids have rights, and it is up to mature adults to make sure that kids are protected."

Sue Bernard, spokeswoman for the diocese, said Richard is being targeted for his associations more than his behavior. Identifying Richard brings allegations of sexual misconduct by clergymen into a "new realm," she said.

"We had been talking about criminal issues, but now we are talking about someone's personal sin being made public," Bernard said. "Do we expect more from our priests? Of course we do. But this should be a matter of internal discipline or private discipline. . . . This is about sin, and we are a church of sinners."

Harris, who created the Web site, took a leave of absence from Our Lady of the Lakes Parish in Oquossoc in late August while the diocese investigated allegations that he swam nude and went in a hot tub with minors in the 1980s.

Bernard said Harris will not be returned to a parish, and could be removed from the priesthood if he tries to return as an active priest.

Caron was acquitted by a jury in 1993 of a sexual misconduct charge involving a young woman. He was retired in 2000, and was instructed by Bishop Joseph Gerry not to perform priestly functions because of his involvement in the Web site.

Bernard confirmed that Richard wrote the e-mails. But she said that, unlike Caron and Harris, he was not the subject of other allegations.

Richard was disciplined by the diocese when the site was uncovered in 2000. Bernard would not say what the discipline was, but said he was never suspended or sent to treatment.

If Richard wrote similar e-mails today, Bernard said, his actions would violate the diocese's recently adopted code of ethics. But they still wouldn't automatically lead to suspension or removal from active ministry. Nor would it be considered a violation of the new national policy designed to protect children from abuse.

Although Richard does not face any discipline from the bishop for his involvement with the Web site, Bernard said, it remains to be seen if his ministry will be affected.

"He has been publicly embarrassed and humiliated. He will have to see if he can still have an effective ministry," she said. "Will there be consequences? Will he be able to focus on his work? We don't know."

Concerns about Richard's future could be raised by members of his parish, said Rick Bradbury, chairman of the Holy Family parish council.

"It would certainly cause a lot of doubt in people's minds," Bradbury said. "It's a very forgiving parish, but I'm sure that there are a lot of people who would be uncertain, especially if it involved homosexuality."

 
 

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