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  Bishop Places Priest on Leave
Springfield Prelate Acts in Abuse Probe

Boston Globe
April 16, 2004

In a rapid series of responses to the Springfield Diocese's clergy sex-abuse crisis, newly installed Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell announced yesterday that he has placed a Catholic priest on leave pending an investigation of alleged sexual misconduct 25 years ago.

The Rev. Ronald E. Wamsher, 54, will not be allowed to perform any priestly duties during the probe, including his responsibilities as legal aide to the diocesan tribunal that rules on marriage annulments.

The announcement followed the resignation Monday of the president of the diocesan communications department. Michael Graziano, a layman, stepped down after an allegation of sexual misconduct dating to 1985.

Church officials received the allegation against Wamsher in 2002, but the complex case was slowed by a lack of trained investigators on the diocese's review board, said Laura Failla Reilly, the diocese's advocate for victims.

Reilly said the review board recommended on April 4 that the Wamsher case be investigated further. In October, the case was cited by auditors hired by the US bishops as being particularly slow-moving and an example of the diocese's need to improve. As part of its response to that audit, the diocese recently hired a retired State Police detective to investigate allegations of abuse for which the all-volunteer review board lacked the expertise and time to resolve quickly, Reilly said.

In another move yesterday, McDonnell held the first of 10 meetings scheduled over the next two weeks with alleged victims and their families, said Reilly, who attended the session. In the meeting, McDonnell "expressed his apologies, his regret, and his horror that this abuse happened," Reilly said. "And he listened. He wanted to listen to the survivor about the impact it's had on his life."

McDonnell also said yesterday that he wants to disassociate the diocese from a $100,000 fund established by anonymous donors to aid indigent, defrocked priests. Sanctioned by former Bishop Thomas L. Dupre, who resigned in February following allegations that he abused two minors in the 1970s, the fund has been assailed by victims as a possible source of support for former priest Richard Lavigne, who was convicted in 1992 of molesting two altar boys.

Lavigne is the only suspect ever to be identified in the slaying of altar boy Daniel Croteau, whose bludgeoned body was found 32 years ago yesterday in the Chicopee River.

Stephen J. Block of East Springfield, who said he was abused by Lavigne at 12 years old, applauded McDonnell's decision to distance the diocese from the fund. "He's 100 percent on the money on that one," Block said. "The diocese should be helping the victims, not the perpetrators."

Reilly, who was appointed victims' advocate by Dupre, also said she is pleased by McDonnell's stance.

"I think the donors were very well-intentioned," Reilly said. "However, I have heard from many of the survivors and their families and the community at large that they're very upset, that it looks like the diocese is supporting the laicized priests."

Under current procedure, Lavigne can apply for benefits from the fund once his monthly stipend from the diocese expires May 1. Terry Hegarty, a diocesan spokesman, said McDonnell plans to speak with the donors before deciding whether to transfer the fund outside diocesan control.

In other moves, the diocese has agreed to a 45-day moratorium on legal action on the abuse lawsuits. The moratorium is designed to allow a mediation service to try to broker a settlement with approximately two-dozen alleged victims in a consolidated lawsuit filed in Hampden Superior Court.

John Stobierski, a lawyer who represents about 20 clients in that suit, said the moratorium indicates a greater willingness by the new bishop to address the sex-abuse crisis.

 
 

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