Suspended Smithfield priest had faced previous allegations of sexual abuse

Providence Journal [Providence RI]

February 4, 2022

By Tom Mooney

This week wasn’t the first time that Catholic priest Frank Santilli, removed now as pastor at St. Philip’s Parish in Smithfield, had been accused of sexually abusing a minor. 

No one knows that more than Dennis Laprade, 52, of North Providence. 

In 2014, after learning through the news that another former altar boy like himself had made allegations against Santilli, he contacted the diocese to tell his story. 

He didn’t know how similar their accounts would be. 

In 2012, the other man told a church official that the priest had molested him “approximately 30 times” during the early 1980s.  

More:Smithfield priest on leave after sexual-assault allegation

The molestations allegedly occurred after morning Masses. The priest would put the boy on his lap, ask if he was ticklish and “push up against him with his groin,” according to a diocese letter sent to the Rhode Island State Police in April 2012. 

In about half of those incidents, the priest allegedly reached into the boy’s pants. The man said his brother had also been molested by the priest. 

Two years later, it was Laprade reporting to the diocese that Santilli had behaved much in the same manner at Our Lady of Lourdes, in Providence, except “I wouldn’t let him” get inside his pants. 

But church officials chose not to believe his report, Laprade says. 

“I had a couple of meetings with the diocese and gave many statements. After that they decided they wanted to do a lie detector test on me. I asked if it was through the state police and they said no, it was their own.” 

Laprade said he sought the advice of a couple of people, including then-state police Lt. Col. Joseph Philbin, who Laprade said advised him not to take a lie-detector test because it wasn’t a reliable tool anyway. 

“All that they were going to do was try to prove I was wrong,” Laprade said. “But I had nothing to gain from it. The statute of limitation [for prosecution] was over. I was just a guy coming forward, abused when I was young, and they did nothing about it but sweep it under the rug. And he’s still there, at a Catholic church with a school” next door. 

Officially the diocese would determine that Laprade wasn’t credible. 

“How could I not be credible? I’ve always been married, always had a job, never been in trouble with the law. And I had nothing to gain.” 

At the time the diocese supported Santilli — at least when it came to the 2012 allegation. 

On March 24, 2014 — four days before Laprade contacted the diocese with his allegation — two groups, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and Bishop Accountability, held a news conference outside the office of the Diocese of Providence demanding Santilli’s removal from ministry. 

Hours later the diocese posted a statement on its website. It said, in part, that the 2012 allegation had been “reported to the state police and was carefully investigated by the Diocesan Review Board. As a result of this thorough review, the allegation was deemed to lack any credibility.” 

The statement then went on to say: “Father Santilli is an exemplary pastor and continues to enjoy the total confidence and support of the Diocese of Providence.” 

That changed this week, after the Rhode Island State Police and the attorney general’s office investigated another allegation that Santilli had sexually abused a minor around 1980. 

The diocese said it received an email complaint on Dec. 29 from a relative of someone claiming the abuse.  

Although the statute of limitations had expired, the attorney general’s office said it presented the investigation’s findings to the diocese “given the seriousness of the allegations and the accused priest’s current duty assignment.” 

That led the diocese to announce Thursday that it was putting Santilli on administrative leave, banning him from public ministry and from residing on church property. 

On Friday, SNAP and Bishop Accountability accused Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of ignoring Santilli’s behavior for years. 

“We at and SNAP are outraged that Bishop Tobin left Santilli in ministry,” the groups said in a statement. “He decided to put children at risk, even while he allowed brave victims to be discredited and demeaned.” 

The groups said that the bishop has known of allegations against Santilli for nearly 10 years. “During those ten years, Santilli has had free rein with altar servers, children at the parish school, and children attending CCD classes.” 

The groups urged Attorney General Peter Neronha “to explore pressing criminal charges against Bishop Tobin and the Diocese of Providence for endangering the Rhode Island children.” 

The diocese, responded in a statement, saying it “fully and promptly reports every allegation to law enforcement, which includes all of the previous allegations involving Fr. Santilli. These allegations were also reported in local media at the time. The Diocesan Review Board, comprised of independent legal, judicial, and child protection experts, agreed that none of the previous complaints had been substantiated at that time.”