The Republican - MassLive [Springfield MA]
April 26, 2021
By Stephanie Barry
Lawyers for a plaintiff in a clergy abuse and cover-up lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield are asking the state Trial Court to assign a special judge to take ownership of the case.
The motion by the plaintiff — a Chicopee man who said he was raped at age 9 by the late Bishop Christopher J. Weldon and two other priests in the 1960s — is among a small flurry of recent filings in the case.
The lawsuit was filed in Hampden Superior Court in February using a John Doe pseudonym to protect the victim’s privacy. Beyond the abuse allegations, the complaint alleges that present-day diocesan officials had no appetite to address his allegations because Weldon was a revered prelate, and attempted a cover-up.
Diocesan officials have denied hindering the investigation of the man’s allegations against Weldon. Among the defendants are former Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski, since named archbishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Louis.
Also named in the lawsuit are Msgr. Christopher Connelly; former chairman of the Diocesan Review Board John Hale; Mark Dupont, communications director for the diocese; former victim’s advocate Patricia McManamy; Jeffrey Trant, her successor; Kevin Murphy, a retired state trooper and investigator for the review board; and longtime diocesan attorney John “Jack” Egan.
In a slightly unusual move, the plaintiff’s attorneys have requested specifically that Worcester Superior Court Judge Janet Kenton-Walker preside over the case, although they acknowledge court leaders may choose whomever they see fit. In a previous motion, the plaintiff requested Hampden Superior Court Judge Karen Goodwin, a former federal prosecutor.
Lawyers for eight individual defendants, plus the Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield as a corporation, have opposed the motions, and filed their own motions to dismiss the case entirely.
Special judge assignments are sought if a criminal case involves a law enforcement official, for example, from a certain county or city. Jurists outside of that geographic area are often assigned to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. In other instances — like the long-running Nathan Bill’s off-duty cop brawl prosecution — one judge will be assigned to manage the sheer volume of defendants and litigation. In yet others, one judge may be assigned to a case built on highly sensitive evidence such as the Adolfo “Big Al” Bruno mob murder prosecution in state court of the mid-2000s.
In this case, lawyers for the plaintiff argue the presence of Egan as a defendant has the potential to taint the case. Egan is a former law partner of Superior Court Judge Edward McDonough, who sits primarily in Hampden County.
And, since other retired Hampden County judges have been assigned to tasks both peripheral and critical to the investigation, a motion filed April 20 suggests a judge outside the four western counties is the only fair choice. Plaintiff’s attorneys also argue that Weldon’s victim would be re-traumatized repeatedly if the case was handed off from judge to judge depending on session assignments, which is the norm in the Superior Court circuit.
“Special assignment will protect him from further harm by allowing one judge to become familiar with the facts of the case. Special assignment will also promote judicial economy by allowing one judge to become familiar with the basic facts of the case and enable her or him to make informed decisions on discovery and other matters in a timely fashion,” the plaintiff’s motion reads.
Weldon was the leader of the region’s Catholic churches between 1950 and 1977. He died in 1982.
In the defense motion to dismiss the case, attorneys argue the diocese falls under a charitable exemption, and the lawsuit risks running afoul of the First Amendment’s religious autonomy doctrine and breaching the commonwealth’s adherence to separation of church and state.
“Massachusetts has long adhered to this constitutional requirement to avoid civil entanglement in questioning a religious organization’s processes and internal determinations,” their motion reads.
The defense motion adds that the court also will be required to wade into canon law controlled by the “Holy See” under the Vatican.
The plaintiff’s allegations were deemed “unequivocally credible” in an independent report after an investigation by retired Hampden Superior Court Judge Peter Velis and retired Springfield Police Detective Dennis O’Connor. Weldon’s name now appears on a list of clergy abusers maintained by the diocese. His name and image have been stripped from buildings throughout the diocese and a rehabilitation hospital at Mercy Medical Center.
Weldon’s body also was exhumed from his grave at Heaven’s Gate cemetery. His remains were relocated to a less prominent spot and marked with a simple gravestone, as opposed to the tall stone pillar at the entrance to the Tinkham Road graveyard that marked his final resting place for decades.
The plaintiff came forward with his allegations around 2013, according to court filings. Velis was not commissioned by Rozanski until 2019 and Velis did not issue his report validating the man’s claims until the following year. However, Velis said Rozanski was adamant the diocese do a thorough investigation, banging his hand on the table and “demanding the truth.”
Two longtime board members, Hale and Wilbraham attorney Theresa Finnegan, resigned after Velis’ report was made public. They argued diocesan officials tried to lay too much blame on the volunteer review board.
The plaintiff is one of dozens of clergy abuse victims who have accused priests in this diocese over the years. Egan says in an affidavit in the defendants’ motion to dismiss at least 50 victims have filed lawsuits. Most were young boys raped by priests in the 1960s and 1970s.
Weldon is the second late bishop to end up on the list the diocese maintains of clergy — both alive and dead — with credible allegations leveled against him. Former Bishop Thomas L. Dupre retired in the face of abuse allegations in 2004. He was permanently removed from public ministry and died in 2017. He was indicted for sexually abusing two altar boys 30 years before but the statute of limitations stymied the prosecution.
The plaintiff also was an altar boy when Weldon and the others allegedly began abusing him. He said Weldon was fond of slapping his young charges and was a particularly cruel assailant, once scolding the boy for crying.
“You’re not supposed to cry,” the man told the review board regarding his recall of Weldon’s instructions.
There are 20 current, former and late priests on the list maintained on the Springfield diocesan website, plus one deacon.