Bishop Accountability
  Bishop Never Comfortable in Spotlight

By Bill Zajac
The (Springfield MA) Republican
February 15, 2004

When the Rev. Thomas L. Dupre wrote about the scourge of clergy sexual abuse two years ago, he seemed to be personally offended.

"As a newly ordained priest in my first parish, I learned that an older priest whom I respected a great deal had been accused of molesting a 13-year-old boy," Dupre wrote in the March 2002 issue of the Catholic Observer. "I could hardly believe it. I was confused and many emotions welled up in me, including disbelief, anger, disappointment, a feeling of being let down."

This week those very words describe the feelings experienced by many Catholics in Western Massachusetts, clergy and lay people alike. Dupre abruptly retired as bishop at age 70 Wednesday after The Republican confronted him Tuesday with allegations that he had abused two boys for years more than two decades ago.

Although the diocese announced Dupre was retiring early for health reasons, he had known since last year that the newspaper was investigating the allegations.

Dupre's failure to respond to the newspaper's questions before checking himself into an undisclosed medical facility Tuesday night was uncharacteristic of the philosophy he expressed while handling the clergy sexual abuse crisis over the past two years. Until last week Dupre always responded to inquiries from the media as the sexual abuse scandal unfolded locally and nationally.

At one point he even went out of his way to say he understood it was the media's job to inquire about abuse, even though it was painful for him to have to remove clergy from their jobs when allegations proved credible. He agonized over issues surrounding the rights of privacy of the accused and the public's interest in knowing information.

Until two years ago, Dupre's 44-year career with the Catholic Church seemed somewhat unremarkable, even though he had risen through the hierarchical ranks to become leader of the 270,000 Catholics in Western Massachusetts.

However, the clergy sexual abuse scandal placed the man described as shy, sensitive, caring and pastoral into the local media spotlight on an almost daily basis as he grappled with a steady stream of accusations about abusive priests and diocesan policies that addressed the safety of children.

In the end, his handling of the scandal - as well as the accusation he was an abuser himself - and how he responds to it will end up defining his career.

Those who saw Dupre deal with the abuse crisis knew the strain was enormous. However, until the revelations in The Republican last week, most who knew Dupre say they knew nothing of the charges.

The Republican first learned of the allegations through an anonymous tip, which it shared with the mother of one of the alleged victims. A longtime diocesan school worker, she confronted her now adult son and said he acknowledged the abuse began in the 1970s when he was about 13 and lasted into the 1980s. She said she also learned that the bishop had abused another preteen boy.

The mother last year unsuccessfully tried to persuade her son to pursue charges. Both the son and the other alleged victim have since retained lawyer Roderick MacLeish, who has handled hundreds of abuse cases in the Boston Archdiocese.

Dupre's sensitivity contributed to the effects the clergy abuse scandal had on his health, according to Monsignor Richard S. Sniezyk, who was chosen as the interim diocesan administrator Friday until the Vatican chooses another bishop.

"The last two years were very trying for him with the relentless problems that came up day after day. It took its toll on his health," said Sniezyk Wednesday before learning of the allegations against Dupre.

Sniezyk said Dupre's doctor feared he could suffer a heart attack or stroke if he remained working.

The allegations against Dupre left his colleagues in shock. On Friday Sniezyk said he would give Dupre no more than a week before contacting him regarding the accusations. Sniezyk also said the diocese needs to come clean about the "old-boy network" that perpetuated abuse years ago.

By Dupre's own admission, he was an introvert and uncomfortable with the public nature of his job. He once said he could understand how some people would mistakenly perceive him as cool and distant.

"Being a shy person by nature and being introverted, it is a little difficult for me to reach out to people in an extroverted way. It is just not my way, not my personality. Not everyone can be gushing with emotion and expressive," Dupre told The Republican in 2001 as he explained that being more extroverted was one of his Christmas wishes.

"For some of us, we have to make more of an effort to show what's on the inside," he said.

Dupre said he didn't yearn for any material gifts.

"I have everything I need, and I'm not looking for anything I don't need," he said.

Instead, he wanted to see some familiar faces more often and some new faces in church.

"I'd like to see people taking their faith more seriously. For some, their faith is a sometimes thing. And there are some who are estranged and alienated. I hope we can reach out to them in some way and let them know that they are welcome."

Sniezyk said Dupre worked hard to keep in touch with all in the diocese.

"It was not unusual for him to stay up until midnight or 1 in the morning to answer every letter he received," Sniezyk said.

One letter he didn't answer, however, was from the mother of the alleged victim. She said she wrote to him expressing her anger last year; shortly after that Dupre told The Republican he would probably retire before the mandatory retirement age of 75 because of health problems.

Dupre, who has two brothers - James F. of Ipswich and Ware and Robert J. of Granby - spent his childhood in South Hadley, Holyoke and Chicopee. His father, a mill worker, died in 1980.

His mother, a stay-at-home mom, died in 2001. In his homily at her funeral Mass, Dupre talked about his mother's "descent into the nightmare world of mental illness" shortly after giving birth to Dupre's youngest brother. His mother was in her 40s when she was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

"She had to contend with phantoms in the night, knocks at the door, voices at the window and hostile messages from various sources ... Through it all, she remained faithful to God, her daily devotions, especially the several rosaries she recited," Dupre said.

Because of his mother's experience, Dupre became involved in the Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Western Massachusetts.

In his personal life, Dupre had a small circle of friends. Among priests, his best friends have been the Revs. Henry L. Dorsch of Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Southwick and Francis E. Reilly of St. Mary's Parish in Longmeadow. Both priests didn't return calls requesting comments about Dupre.

Dupre spent much of his career splitting time between diocesan offices and parish work.

Beginning in 1978 he served 12 years as pastor of St. Louis de France Parish in West Springfield, where he developed a reputation for being a good friend to minorities, particularly the Vietnamese community. The alleged abuse began around the time he was a pastor at the church.

"For the Vietnamese New Year, he helped me to choose the place and rent it for the celebration," Joseph Nguyen recalled when Dupre was being installed as bishop in 1995.

The Rev. John Pham, the late director of the Southeast Asian Apostolate of the diocese, used to refer to Dupre as the Vietnamese community's own bishop.

"We rely on his support," Pham said in 1995.

Other than his installation as bishop, Dupre had not been the focus of many headlines until the clergy sexual abuse crisis broke two years ago. Then, he came under great criticism.

Alleged abuse victims held him responsible for the diocese's hardball legal approach to the 30 or so clergy sexual abuse lawsuits the diocese is facing. He was also accused of being slow to defrock Richard R. Lavigne, a convicted child molester who was recently stripped of his collar after being accused of molesting some 30 children over the years.

Lavigne was also the only suspect in the 1972 slaying of altar boy Daniel Croteau, but blood tests failed to conclusively link him to the crime.

Greenfield lawyer John J. Stobierski and many of the 20 or so plaintiffs he represents in the lawsuits claim the diocese has tried to escape accountability through legal technicalities, not on the merits of the claims.

The diocese, for instance, has asked the courts to dismiss some of the cases by claiming that a charitable immunity law protected nonprofit institutions like churches from liability claims until September 1971.

"I believe he clearly mishandled this," said Stobierski, adding that bishops in other New England states and elsewhere in the country resolved cases without raising legal technicalities.

He has asked Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly to investigate the allegations.

Dupre's most vocal critic was the Rev. James J. Scahill, pastor of St. Michael's Parish in East Longmeadow. Scahill's desire to help victims of clergy sexual abuse and his displeasure with Dupre's handling of the scandal pitted him against the person he vowed to obey when he was ordained in 1974.

Scahill, who counseled the mother of the alleged victim and her son, said the allegations cast doubt on every decision Dupre made regarding the sexual abuse scandal.

Scahill reported the allegations against Dupre to Reilly last November and said Reilly told him the case would be investigated if the victims pressed charges. Hampden County District Attorney William M. Bennett said last week he is looking into the claims to see if criminal prosecution is warranted.

Scahill also attempted to report the allegations last November to Boston Archbishop Sean O'Malley, but said O'Malley never responded.

Scahill's message to O'Malley did not specify the reason for the call. Scahill has a record of the date and time of the call, but the Boston Archdiocese says it has no such record.

Almost two years ago, Scahill's parish began to protest the diocese's financial support of Lavigne. The parish has withheld the portion of its weekly collections intended for the bishop's office.

Scahill's effort put pressure on Dupre, who had publicly stated he felt obligated to continue to support Lavigne if and when he was defrocked. Scahill questioned why Dupre wasn't as generous with alleged victims. Lavigne's defrocking was announced in January.

Months before the announcement, Dupre announced a plan for the diocese to facilitate a fund created from monetary gifts from people willing to financially support priests like Lavigne who have been removed from ministry because of sexual abuse.

Scahill referred to the money as "the felons fund."

Scahill's criticism of Dupre sometimes surfaced in face-to-face meetings, such as a clerics' convocation in Maine 18 months ago. Scahill stood in front of all other priests in the diocese and challenged Dupre on clergy sexual abuse issues. The encounter came close to a shouting match. Privately, Dupre was counseled to be patient with Scahill.

There were often charges and counter-charges against each other that spilled into the media's coverage of the scandal. The most public episode occurred when Scahill accused Dupre of saying one of his predecessors destroyed diocesan records that were possibly related to clergy sexual abuse.

Dupre, in response, denied it and arranged for the media to attend his sworn testimony regarding it. Legal experts called it extremely unusual.

Dupre steadfastly publicly defended his handling of clergy sexual abuse. His final press conference as bishop was in November when he announced that the diocese fared well in a national audit of its implementation of its policy to protect children. Dupre said auditors praised his diocese for hiring a clergy monitor, who would oversee priests removed from ministry for sexual abuse.

If the allegations against Dupre prove credible, the monitor could oversee his activities.

Some hold out hope that even this latest scandal will have a positive effect on a church in turmoil.

The Rev. Paul E. Manship hinted that Dupre's departure opens the door to a new approach to diocesan problems.

"It would be my personal hope as a priest in the Springfield Diocese that we could deepen our need for compassion and understanding in dealing with the pain of our people in some other way than a juridical response with concerns over finances and how things may look on the outside," Manship said.

"We are challenged by our gospel to go beyond an institutional, protective response."


Original material copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.