Crux [Denver CO]
July 19, 2022
By John Lavenburg
Following a diocesan investigation into allegations that for years he coerced vulnerable women into sex, the head of a parish soup kitchen in the Diocese of Worcester in Massachusetts has resigned amid complaints from at least one accuser that the diocese itself needs to take greater responsibility.
The investigation into allegations against William “Billy” Riley, former head of the St. John’s Catholic Church food program, began in mid-March. The final report was published on July 14, one day after Riley resigned from his post.
In a statement accompanying the publication of the report, the diocese doesn’t comment on Riley other than to say he resigned, and because the 72-page report is heavily redacted it’s unclear what the findings were. There are three separate complaints against Riley in the report that are almost completely redacted.
“You are allowing a perpetrator to resign and redacting all findings … taking no ownership or accountability actually undermines victims’ belief that coming forward even matters,” Nicole Bell, one of Riley’s accusers, told Crux.
“What this report does in the way it’s redacted is that it protects perpetrators. It does nothing for victims,” she said. “[The diocese] should at least acknowledge what he did and that they’re going to do better to prevent things like this from happening in the future, but what they’ve done is just to protect the church.”
According to the diocese, the redactions respect the privacy of the claimants and people who cooperated in the investigation as well as the employee in accordance with Massachusetts employment law.
Bell detailed her allegations against Riley to Crux in March. She is the CEO of Living in Freedom Together – an organization in Worcester that supports women leaving prostitution and works to end the sex trade.
Riley has become a well-known figure in Worcester for his work at the soup kitchen. He has been with the soup kitchen since 2013. That year, the soup kitchen moved from St. John’s lower church to an old building abutting the property to meet a growing need. The soup kitchen’s new home was dedicated on May 13, 2013, as the St. Francis Xavier Center.
Father John Madden, the pastor of St. John’s Catholic Church, was also investigated on allegations that he was aware of, or complicit in, the alleged conduct of Riley, that he was engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct himself with vulnerable women who stayed in the parish’s sober house, and that he engaged in witness manipulation by paying money for the benefit of an individual who could be involved in the investigation.
The investigator, Robert Hennigan, found the claims against Madden unwarranted.
In total, 85 people were contacted during the investigation. They included diocesan and parish staff, program volunteers, and men and women who are, or at one time, were residents of the parish sober house, known as Harrington House. According to the diocese, many of the people cooperated with the investigation while others refused to participate or couldn’t be reached.
While the diocesan statement doesn’t address Riley other than to say he resigned, Bishop Robert McManus of Worcester thanked Madden and all those involved in the investigation.
“This entire investigation has been very telling about the depth and the breadth of charitable assistance that is offered to people in great need who are often forced to live on the streets of Worcester,” McManus said in a statement. “I am grateful to the investigative efforts of Attorney Hennigan, and to all staff, clients and claimants who cooperated with this extensive effort.”
“I also want to publicly offer my appreciation to Fr. John Madden and St. John’s Parish for their many years of compassionate care for the clients who have come to these programs and continue to come in great numbers,” McManus continued.
Bell, however, has questions about details of the report. Specifically, she pointed to a section that states Madden heard the rumors about Riley from multiple people years ago, and yet a formal investigation was not launched, or any action taken.
The report states that while Madden said he did not have any memory of seeing Riley act inappropriately with female patrons in the food program, some patrons approached him pre-COVID-19 pandemic and claimed that Riley had been with prostitutes. The report continues, “Fr. Madden stated further that ‘none of these rumors involved someone being victimized, or that Mr. Riley was seeking sex from patrons in return for food.’”
Further, the report states that there were no names or details that came with the allegations that Riley had been with prostitutes. It also found that Madden brought the rumors to Riley – who denied them – and subsequently to two Worcester Police Department officers, one of whom had also heard the rumors, but similarly didn’t have any details or corroborative evidence. Therefore, neither officer could further investigate the claims, according to the report.
That piece of the report concludes that Madden continued from that point forward “to be attentive” to Riley’s conduct, and “did not find any further indication of sexual misconduct.”
Bell said, “The report finds that Father Madden had no knowledge of the abuse that was perpetrated by Billy Riley, yet in the report it says that Father Madden told the investigator that he heard from a police officer, from people using the soup kitchen, that Billy Riley was [involved in prostitution]. How is that in the report, but then your finding is that he had no knowledge?”
A spokesperson for the Diocese of Worcester declined a Crux July 17 follow-up interview request, saying “the report and press release should address anything we can speak about publicly.”
Going forward, Bell wants the diocese to publicize what the investigation found that led to Riley’s resignation, and to explore new preventative measures. She also wants the Archdiocese of Boston to look into the diocese’s handling of the investigation, which she outlined in a June letter to Cardinal Sean O’Malley.
As of July 18, it looks like the matter will be left to the Diocese of Worcester.
“We just want the church to put measures in place that actually protect victims and hold perpetrators accountable, not just let them walk off into the sunset and then act like they’ve done their due diligence,” Bell said.