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  Some Suspended Priests Still Paid No Accused or Convicted Clergy Have Been Defrocked

By Annmarie Timmins
Concord Monitor (New Hampshire)
February 18, 2005

Last week, the Archdiocese of Boston defrocked four more priests who'd been accused or convicted of child sexual assault. There's no harsher punishment because it eliminates a priest's financial support from the church and his right to minister to people.

Here, the Catholic Church has retired or suspended accused and convicted priests, but it has not defrocked them. And some priests put on administrative leave or forced into retirement continue to receive pay and benefits from the diocese. Bishop John McCormack asked his staff in 2001 to increase the monthly allowances sent to incarcerated priests. As recently as 2003, the diocese was sending retirement pay for one suspended priest to New Mexico, where he lives with a woman who was his lover in Keene. And the Rev. Aime Boisselle, a Concord priest who resigned in 2002 in the face of abuse allegations, said last night that the diocese is helping him with medical coverage and living expenses.

"When you look at Boston, and you have priests being defrocked there, why do we not have priests being defrocked here?" said Anne Pullen of the local chapter of the lay group Voice of the Faithful. "And where are the people in the pews? The layperson in this church is saying, 'Move on. Stop talking about this.' But there is no accountability."

The Rev. Edward Arsenault, assistant to McCormack, declined to discuss particular priests' cases last night but said McCormack and the church feel a responsibility to support priests. Arsenault would not say how the diocese decides whether or how to compensate an accused priest. Incarcerated priests, he said, receive only minimal support.

A Massachusetts lawyer who specializes in church law agreed to explain the defrocking process on the condition of anonymity because she helps soon-to-be defrocked priests negotiate the steps.

Defrocking, or, in church terms, removing a priest from his clerical state, begins in a local diocese at the request of a bishop but is decided by the pope, she said. The process is the same for all Catholic dioceses. A decision from Rome can take months, even years, she said, because local church officials must conduct an investigation and church trial before sending a documented request for removal to the pope. Throughout the investigation and trial, she said, the priest is given ample opportunity to defend himself.

Priests themselves can request to be defrocked if they want to leave the priesthood to marry, for example. But typically, the process is reserved for punishing a priest who has broken the law or otherwise acted so egregiously he can no longer serve as a priest. Arsenault confirmed that no New Hampshire priests have been defrocked, but he declined to say whether the Diocese of Manchester has asked Rome to defrock anyone.

The Massachusetts lawyer likened the removal to the sentence at theof a church trial because the priest is stripped of his ability to minister. But he is also cut off financially from the church, and that is what distinguishes a defrocking from a simple suspension or resignation. The latter does not necessarily eliminate financial support.

"If you are old or sick, or if you can't get another job with health insurance, the church may not remove a priest from his clerical state," she said. "They say, 'You can't function as a priest, but we aren't going to cut you off financially.'"

Several Boston priests have been defrocked, including the late John Geoghan and Paul Shanley, who was recently convicted in Boston of sexually assaulting a boy many decades ago. Of the four priests defrocked last week, one was convicted of assault while the others were only accused.

In New Hampshire, four priests are serving prison time for sexually assaulting children. The Rev. Roger Fortier is serving 20 to 40 years; the Rev. Gordon MacRae, up to 67 years; the Rev. Joseph Maguire, at least 44 years; and the Rev. Francis Talbot, 10 years.

After meeting with Fortier and MacRae at the prison in 2001, McCormack asked Arsenault to increase their monthly allowance by $50, to $150, according to church files. In a church memo that same year, Arsenault responded to MacRae's request for more than $5,000 for an appeal by suggesting the church give the money confidentially to minimize bad press.

Arsenault declined to comment on the memo last night, saying he was not aware of it. He said the diocese does not help priests pay for their legal fees.

In that 2001 church memo regarding MacRae's appeal, Arsenault wrote that he didn't believe MacRae was innocent, although he did consider his long sentence "gravely unjust." Arsenault wrote that MacRae deserved the church's "charity" because his base pay had been inadequate. The memo does not say what MacRae's pay was.

When state authorities investigated the diocese in 2002 for its handling of abusive priests, they found that the diocese was paying retirement and sick benefits to priests removed for misconduct. The Rev. John Nolin of Keene, removed in 1994 for an abuse allegation, was given retirement status in 2000. His retirement check is sent to New Mexico, where he lives with a woman he was intimate with in Keene, according to state investigative files.

Boisselle, the longtime pastor at Sacred Heart in Concord, resigned in 2002 immediately after being accused of molesting three boys decades earlier. A 1992 letter in Boisselle's church file noted two occasions when Boisselle had brought young men to the rectory for sex. After Boisselle resigned, McCormack granted him retirement status, a designation that allows pay and benefits to continue.

Reached in Florida last night, Boisselle declined an in-depth interview but said the diocese continues to send him money and cover his health expenses.

It is unclear how many of the nearly 50 priests removed for accusations continue to receive financial support from the diocese. Or how much money the church spends on those benefits annually.

 
 

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