The Berkshire Eagle [Pittsfield MA]
August 7, 2021
By Larry Parnass
It began on the afternoon of her first Communion, the day Sheri A. Biasin, a reedy child of 7 or 8, dressed in the shiny white dress her grandmother made.
That was the day one of the most trusted people in Biasin’s life, the family’s priest, the Rev. Daniel L. Gill, followed her into a bathroom at her house in West Stockbridge, declared she was “the chosen one,” and put his tongue in her mouth.
Over the next four years, until she was able, at age 12, to fend him off, Biasin says, Gill groped and fondled her sexually at family picnics, sleepovers and beach outings in Pittsfield, West Stockbridge, Sandisfield and in the Franklin County town of Ashfield. Biasin says she grew up feeling different, alone, unlovable, dirty. She cried into her pillow and worried about the next weekend outing with the handsy priest so adored by her parents.
There are moments, now, when Biasin will say, in her rushed and husky voice, that years of Gill’s abuse were not the hardest part.
The worst, maybe, came well after she found the courage at age 42, with three children, two failed marriages and disabling jaw pain, to call a Springfield Diocese hotline and tell her story of clergy abuse, just as a volcano of such accounts erupted across Massachusetts, the country and the world.
“Father Dan” was dead — and Biasin had long since lost her trust in organized religion. By going to the diocese, she hoped to put down a marker in her life, a before-and-after moment, that might clip the long tail of abuse. The church logged April 29, 2002, as Biasin’s date of intake.
Two days later, a staffer at the Springfield headquarters noted “many” instances of sexual assault.
“She feels that most of her problems in life stem from her early molestation. … Describes herself as angry … scattered, having flashbacks, unable to focus. Lots of triggers bring her molestation to the forefront.”
[Photo: A photograph from 1967 of 7-year-old Sheri Biasin with her father at her childhood home in West Stockbridge, on the day of her first Communion. Hours after the photograph was taken, “that little girl’s life changed forever,” Biasin said. That day, Biasin was subjected to the first of what would become a yearslong pattern of sexual abuse by the priest who delivered her Communion.]
Six years go by. Biasin was asked by the church in 2008 to submit a report on her abuse all over again. She complied, including pages photocopied from her 2002 complaint to spare her some of the emotional toll.
“Reliving this traumatic pain is just as devastating as it was 6 years ago,” she wrote by hand in 2008. “I am hoping it is acceptable that I attach what I wrote back then … .”
She had another hope, too: “This is the absolute last time I have to do this. I dread the thought of having to write the effects this abuse [had] on all of my adult life.”
Jump ahead 13 years, and this is what pains Biasin now: The diocese, after spending more than two decades grappling with the clergy abuse crisis, paying millions in compensation to survivors and seeing one of its own bishops face indictment for child rape, is making Biasin go through it all over again.
On July 12, a worker for the diocese logged details of Biasin’s reported abuse and, five days later, put her account onto three sheets of paper.
As if for the first time.
[Photo: Sheri Biasin, 61, at her home in Cheshire. Starting on the day of her first Communion, Biasin was subjected to a yearslong pattern of sexual abuse by the priest who delivered her Communion.]
“I thought I was doing a lot better,” Biasin said in a recent interview at her home in Cheshire. “Here I am, in it again. I’m going through all this again. It’s almost worse than the abuse itself. I go from fighting my family to fighting a huge institution. This has got to get out of my life.”
In its latest paperwork, the diocese left the heavy lifting — the summary of abuse — to what an employee noted after Biasin’s 2002 original report, which misspelled her first name. Though the diocese claimed to have lost her file, it had kept a copy of that first intake.
“She was molested many times from about age 8 through age 12 by Fr. Daniel Gill. She has been through a lot in her lifetime, and receives therapy on a regular basis. … She wants to come before the Commission to try to find some closure to her early trauma. She hopes that other people have reported Fr. Gill’s behavior as she feels that she was not the only child to be his victim.”
Indeed she was not. The church told Biasin that another woman had reported sexual abuse by Gill when she was 15.
Once more, with pain
Rather than gain distance from the trauma, shame, humiliation and family rejection that marked her childhood and teen years in West Stockbridge, Biasin is steeling herself today for more. She must sit for interviews with two investigators for the diocese, with a representative of the Berkshire District Attorney’s Office and, then, for her third audience with an internal diocesan review board.
The trust Biasin tried to rebuild with her Italian American family’s chosen faith nearly two decades ago, when she called the hotline, again is at rock bottom, despite kindness and apologies from Jeffrey Trant, the current head of the Office of Safe Environment and Victim Assistance, and other steps taken by the diocese to reckon with the unfinished business of clergy abuse.
Within weeks, the diocese expects to release a task force’s recommendations on steps needed to better assist victims of abuse.
Biasin might be a case study in how not to treat a survivor — and even the diocese agrees.
“They want to re-victimize me?” Biasin asks. “If I’m not credible, why have they been paying for decades? I’ve had the flashback of being before all those men on the commission and being judged. I’m getting traumatized because somebody destroyed my file.”
She adds: “I get to such a good place, and then they do something stupid again.”
Trant, who runs the diocese’s program for victims, said he could not comment on Biasin’s case. Still, he acknowledged that the church, which represents Catholics across the four western counties, accepts that some survivors feel mistreated.
“We’ve heard loud and clear from survivors that their experiences were re-victimizing and re-traumatizing. Our relation with survivors and their families has been so fractured,” he said.
Trant said that even today, survivors of clergy abuse have not come forward, though he believes that disclosing what happened to them is crucial to their healing.
“So many people have been suffering in silence,” he said.
Though the Springfield Diocese lists credibly accused clergy on its website, Gill’s name never has appeared. The church’s policy, until this spring, was not to list priests who died before a report of abuse surfaced. The new bishop, the Most Rev. William Byrne, changed that rule this year.
Finally, Biasin thought, her account of years of abuse by Gill would be accepted. She was in her garden at home in June when a friend texted her.
“She said, ‘Sheri, they left it out again,’ ” Biasin said.
Gill’s name was not on the new list, despite the fact that the diocese had documents in its possession confirming that Biasin had come before its Misconduct Commission for Diocesan Personnel in 2002 and had met with Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell in 2008.
Nonetheless, a diocesan spokeswoman said Friday the church has no paperwork showing that a review panel found Biasin’s report to be credible.
The intake form drafted last month, 19 years after Biasin reported her abuse, put down, in item 20, the reason why she was back. “Ms. Biasin stated that she wants Father Gill’s name published by the Diocese on its list of persons credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor.”
To achieve that, Biasin now must help the diocese patch gaps in its records. In a statement to The Eagle, the diocese admits failing Biasin.
“The diocese readily acknowledges that this matter was not handled according to our procedures when the survivor first came forward back in 2002 and was mismanaged again when she attempted on various occasions to have her complaint heard,” it said.
To get Gill’s name on the list, it says, Biasin must act as if her earlier reports never happened.
“Unfortunately, this will require her to share her story again which is deeply regrettable but necessary to arrive at a finding,” the diocese said.
But, that cannot happen until the local DA’s office completes its review, per the terms of a 2020 memorandum of understanding between the diocese and three Western Massachusetts district attorneys. Biasin expects to meet next week with Karen J. Bell, the first assistant Berkshire district attorney.
A spokesman for the Berkshire District Attorney’s Office said Friday that its state police detective unit is reviewing the referral from the diocese.
“Our office is in communication with the victim. We will continue to communicate with the victim about steps in this case,” he said.
Once that is complete, the diocese is free to act.
“We will undertake our own inquiry and have the case heard by the Diocesan Review Board,” the diocese statement said. “It is only after a documented finding of credibility by the Diocesan Review Board that a name is added to the list of those credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor,” the diocese said.
Anyone in a similar position, it said, should call the church’s Office of Safe Environment and Victim Assistance at 413-452-0624, reach a confidential report line at 800-842-9055, or email email@example.com.
Child’s time of abuse
Today, more than 50 years after the abuse, Biasin can speak of it, at times, from a distance. She wonders, in an interview, whether a story needs to include the “salacious details.”
[Photo: St. Charles Church in Pittsfield is pictured here in 2013. When Rev. Daniel L. Gill was transferred from the St. Charles Parish in Pittsfield, Sheri Biasin thought something was suspicious. In her form detailing Gill’s abuse, she wrote: “Diocese knew something was going on if they so quickly moved him out of Pittsfield where he had always been.” ]
In her initial 2002 intake, she provided specific details of the assaults, which did not include intercourse.
In her own journals, Biasin asked herself: “What was this sicko thinking … that it was OK to … touch my breasts and I would never know? That he could stick his hand down my bathing suit — rub up against me?”
Biasin is one among thousands of people living with the consequences of a priest’s criminal assaults, actions that slithered and stung in her life from 1967 to 1971, making this child feel broken and burdened and prompting a nearly successful suicide attempt as a teen, followed by years of counseling and medical care.
[The Eagle is providing a separate chronology of Biasin’s efforts to inform the diocese of the clergy abuse she suffered.]
Biasin says Gill’s assaults ended when she refused to attend family events with the priest or go to sleepovers at a relative’s home, where abuse often occurred. When she told her father why she was done with those lakeside family getaways with the priest, he punished her and told her never to speak that way of “the family priest.”
In her late teens, Biasin found the strength to write a letter to Gill. She told him to stay away from the family’s gatherings. She explained why in one of the questionnaires the church asked her to complete. “I told him he needed to stay away from all our weekly functions or that I could not be trusted to blurt what he did to me out in front of the entire family.”
“He never came to a thing after that,” she said this week.
Gill was transferred from the St. Charles Parish in Pittsfield. In that same form, she wrote: “Diocese knew something was going on if they so quickly moved him out of Pittsfield where he had always been.” The date of Gill’s death is unclear; no obituary could be found in a search.
Talking it out
What Biasin endured has consumed countless hours of counseling over her adult life, much of it paid for in the past two decades by the diocese. She receives an average of $800 a month.
The other day, Biasin visited her current therapist in Easthampton, and allowed The Eagle to attend. The discussion centered not on Gill, but on her “lost” file, her quest to see Gill’s name on the list, her feeling of being victimized again and her wish to show strength for other survivors.
In recent weeks, a close friend, Loris Barrett-Mullins, of Great Barrington, helped Biasin reconstruct the timeline of her efforts to hold the diocese to account, starting in 2002. Barrett-Mullins is Biasin’s archivist, sounding board, ally, champion.
“There are a lot of victims out there who are still silent,” Barrett-Mullins says from her seat on the therapist’s wide couch.
Barrett-Mullins is angry at the diocese, on her friend’s behalf. “It has to do with what they need,” she said of the church. “They’re in a pickle because they lost your file.”
Biasin’s therapist tells her the diocese is unlikely to have “lost” that file.
“That’s egregious. You never lose a file. It’s almost impossible to lose a file,” they said. The therapist declined to be identified, saying use of their name might alarm other clients who have not authorized her to speak, as Biasin did.
Carolee McGrath, a spokeswoman for the diocese, said she was unable to explain why elements of Biasin’s file were lost.
As a priest, Gill held power not only over Biasin, but her whole family, the therapist said. “It made it incredibly complicated for the parents. This was the sacrificial child.”
Biasin remembers the likeness of Father Dan mixing in with family snapshots. When he was expected, people scurried to tidy up and prepare.
“It was like God was coming to the house,” she said.
Family members did not want to believe that Gill, who conferred a special status on the Biasins because of his prominence, was capable of abuse.
“The pressure in this particular situation was great,” the therapist said. “Sheri is not atypical. Family does not help. All that stuff interferes with recovery.”
In a report last fall that they shared with the diocese, the therapist said Biasin suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and persistent depressive disorder.
Shortly before the death of her father, Victor L. Biasin, in 2017, Biasin asked him why he had not protected her from Gill. She said he cried, called himself a coward and expressed a wish to have shielded her from abuse.
Biasin’s mother, Clarice, as she neared death at age 50 in 1981, refused to allow Gill to perform last rites for her.
“He had the audacity to want to give my mother her last rites,” Biasin said of Gill.
It means a lot to Biasin that she was able to reconcile with her parents. What will it mean to her to see Gill’s name on the list of credibly accused priests?
“It will be amazing,” Biasin said. “It’s validation for me.”
She says she won’t be ready, even then, to absolve the diocese of its missteps. “You keep making people jump through hoops, how do you think we’d feel?”
April 29, 2002: Decades after enduring years of sexual assaults by a priest close to her West Stockbridge family, Sheri A. Biasin, then 42, calls in to a hotline, at 8:20 p.m., to report her abuse, naming the late Rev. Daniel Gill, formerly of St. Charles Parish in Pittsfield.
May 1, 2002: Lois C. Lynch, with the Springfield Diocese, writes a summary of Biasin’s case and files it.
May 2002: Biasin completes diocesan paperwork and prepares to appear before the Commission to Investigate Improper Conduct of Diocesan Personnel. She is told May 14 by letter that another woman also had reported that Gill sexually assaulted her, at age 15. Biasin drafts a three-page, handwritten letter to the unnamed woman, offering her support, and asks that the diocese forward it. “I don’t know you (or maybe I do),” it begins.
May 15, 2002: James Bell, chair of the commission, writes to thank Biasin for her “courageous testimony. … Our members were impressed by your candor and memory of very painful details.” Bell says a report will be sent to the Most Rev. Thomas L. Dupre, the current bishop.
Early 2004: About a week before Biasin is to meet with Bishop Dupre, he retires, a day after The Springfield Republican sought comment from Dupre on statements made by the mother of an alleged victim of child rape.
2004: The Springfield Diocese pays settlements to victims of clergy abuse. It also begins paying for counseling sessions for Biasin.
Sept. 27, 2004: Dupre is indicted by a Hampden County grand jury on charges he sexually assaulted two altar boys more than 30 years before, becoming the first U.S. bishop to be indicted amid a flood of clergy sexual assault reports.
April 5, 2005: In a form letter addressed to Biasin, Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell writes that American bishops want to better understand what survivors of clergy abuse have faced, saying, “My strongest hope is that this letter will not open old wounds, but help prevent new ones.” He invites her to go online and fill out a confidential survey. “I apologize again for any hurt you have been caused.”
March 23, 2007: Biasin faxes material to the diocese on basic facts regarding her case, including her experience of abuse, because “they lost the file.”
2008: Therapist Catherine T. Spence, of Pittsfield, describes Biasin as having post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorder “and numerous physical manifestations [that] continue to resurface … as a result of the consequences of this unfortunate but lingering childhood trauma.”
July 2008: The Springfield Diocese sets Aug. 11, 2008, as the deadline for remaining abuse victims to opt in on a financial settlement that would pay $5,000 to $200,000, according to The Springfield Republican. Biasin decides, in sessions with Spence, that it might help her “to finally achieve further ‘resolution’ through the Diocese’s promise to compensate victims for their sexual abuse,” as Spence wrote in a case summary.
Sept. 12, 2008: Biasin writes to the sitting bishop, Timothy A. McDonnell, who replaced Dupre. “I am requesting you please set aside some time ASAP for me so I can finally have closure w/my sexual abuse as a child by our family priest. … I need/want to be free of this horrific suffering. I feel in my heart that meeting w/you will close these chapters in my life.” She attaches the six-page statement she wrote at the time of her initial report. “So I do not need to relive it here and again when I meet w/you.”
Sept. 16, 2008: Bishop McDonnell replies to Biasin. “Let me tell you how sorry I am for all that you have been through,” he writes. He agrees to meet with her and says that staffer Patricia McManamy will be handling her case.
Sept. 30, 2008: Biasin agrees to accept a settlement with the diocese that says, on Page 12, that the agreement “is not to be construed as an admission of liability upon the part of any of the released parties, but rather as a good faith settlement of disputed claims.”
Nov. 20, 2008: An attorney with Egan, Flanagan and Cohen, of Springfield, sends Biasin a check for $39,000 from the “Settlement Fund of the Diocese of Springfield.” Biasin uses most of the money to pay down a home equity loan she had taken out to cover dental bills. She paid tens of thousands of dollars for bone grafts, tooth extractions, implants and other work as a result of TMJ (temporomandibular joint disorder) she developed in her 20s. In a statement that year to the diocese, she wrote: “I can go back to when the grinding & clenching started & it was what I did when I was being abused. I can see my little face to this day biting down & grinding while being abused.” In notes she kept at the time, Biasin wrote that she felt “strong armed to sign settlement … was told if I didn’t I would end up w/nothing.”
March 2009: Biasin meets with McDonnell. In notes she kept, she wrote that she wanted to retrieve a copy of her file. McDonnell went to find it and came back to say her file “must be misplaced,” she wrote. She said the session “did not end well” after she asked the bishop whether Dupre was being cared for in a facility for priests in Maryland, referring to it as “the spa for pedophiles.”
April 1, 2009: McDonnell thanks her for the visit. “I know it wasn’t easy for you, but I pray, God willing, that it was helpful.” He says the church will continue to cover her co-pays for therapy and medications, but not for further dental surgery. “I pray that the continued therapy will help and that you will find some peace and consolation,” the bishop wrote. “I have been praying for you every day in a special way and will continue to do so asking God to watch over you, particularly to help you and to guide you. I hope that I might be in your prayers as well.”
2009 and 2010: Biasin receives letters from the diocese related mostly to her dental bills, confirming that the church will provide up to $10,000 in additional financial assistance. In one letter, McManamy suggests a new type of psychotherapy. “I recognize that feeling that you have been at this a long time and working so hard,” she writes.
Feb. 25, 2021: Biasin calls the diocese to request a copy of her file.
March 5, 2021: Jeffrey J. Trant, who runs the Office of Safe Environment and Victim Assistance, sends her 18 documents. Essential paperwork, such as the 2002 commission’s report to Dupre, is missing. But, the documents do include the 2002 intake report by Lois C. Lynch and confirmation that the commission’s chairman planned to report her abuse to Dupre. The file also includes evidence of ongoing financial support to Biasin and a letter from McDonnell, the bishop.
June 2, 2021: The diocese, under the leadership of William Byrne, decides to expand the list of “credibly accused” priests to include those against whom reports were received after their deaths. Biasin is surprised that the name of her abuser is not listed. She is told that elements of her file have been “lost.”
July 1, 2021: Two investigators employed by the diocese ask Biasin to meet with them to discuss “these allegations.” They do not use the priest’s correct first name.
July 17, 2021: The diocese sends details on Biasin’s report to the office of the Berkshire district attorney, as required by a memorandum of understanding signed in April 2020. “Ms. Biasin stated that she wants Father Gill’s name published by the Diocese on its list of persons credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor,” the referral states. It lists the following as the “date of intake” for her complaint: July 17, 2021.
Larry Parnass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 413-588-8341.