Pittsfield Man's Suit Alleges Abuse at Ex-Lenox Seminary

By Jack Dew
Berkshire Eagle
March 29, 2002

A former Lenox resident has joined the growing ranks of Catholics who claim to have been molested by members of the clergy. He filed suit this week in a state court seeking compensation for what he said was years of sexual abuse.

Mark Leon, 42, who now lives in Pittsfield, contends he was abused by Brother Lawrence Gauthier at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary in Lenox, which until 1979 occupied the sprawling Bellefontaine estate that is now the home of Canyon Ranch spa.

Leon claims to have been one of at least seven to 10 victims of Gauthier, who served as a caretaker on the 96-acre property. In his suit, Leon alleges that Gauthier brought young boys from town to visit the estate and took them into his room where he touched them sexually and made them perform sexual acts with each other.

Through his attorneys, Leon yesterday declined requests for an interview. Yesterday, the Springfield Union-News quoted Leon as saying, "My entire life changed from the first time I was abused. It was the start of living a lie."

Suicide attempts

In the suit, Leon charges Gauthier with sexually abusing him a number of times, beginning in 1969, when Leon was 9 years old, and ending in 1972, when he was 12. He told the Union-News that the abuse led to 15 or 20 suicide attempts and pushed him from being an A student to one who dropped out of high school in the 11th grade.

"I want [Gauthier] to experience the shame that I experienced for so many years," Leon told the Union-News.

The suit, filed in Hampden Superior Court in Springfield, names both the Springfield Diocese and the Priests of the Sacred Heart, the Wisconsin-based order that operated the seminary. Both are accused of negligence, and the suit argues that they should be held responsible because they either knew or should have known of the danger Gauthier posed to the children.

Gauthier, though identified within the text of the lawsuit, is not a named defendant. According to a Sacred Heart spokeswoman, he is now retired but is still a member of the order.

The suit suggests that Gauthier molested other children, and Leon's lawyers said yesterday that they have already spoken with at least one other person who claims to have been one of Gauthier's victims.

"He has verified that similar incidents happened to him at the same location and involving the same brother. We are going to give that information to the authorities and we will cooperate 100 percent with the criminal authorities. We have also retained an investigator to go out into the area and see who else this might have happened to, and we are calling for other victims to come forward," said Jeffrey A. Newman, one of the Boston attorneys representing Leon.

"Based on what we know now, we are estimating that there were seven to 10 [other victims]. Does that mean there aren't more? We don't know. This is just a small snapshot based on what my client knew," Newman said.

A spokesman for the Berkshire County district attorney's office, Fred Lantz, said his department would neither confirm nor deny the existence of any investigation into allegations of sexual abuse at the seminary.

Two weeks ago, Downing told the Associated Press that his office had received information about an accusation against a now-retired priest that occurred more than 30 years ago.

Yesterday, the Springfield Diocese said it had no connection to Sacred Heart or to the seminary, and said it therefore bears no responsibility for the alleged abuse.

In a written statement, the Most Rev. Thomas L. Dupre, bishop of the Springfield Diocese, said he had not seen the lawsuit but reiterated that the diocese "never had any supervisory authority over this seminary or its members."

"Priests of our diocese were not trained there or assigned there. From the published reports only, we are advised by our own counsel this is not a situation for which the Diocese of Springfield would have any legal responsibility. Nevertheless, once we receive the lawsuit it will be given to our insurance carriers for the appropriate response," Dupre wrote.

The seminary taught high school-age boys from 1961 until 1979, when it shut its doors and said it would concentrate its energy on missionary work. At the peak of its enrollment in the 1960s, about 125 students attended the school, following a college-preparatory course of study while simultaneously preparing for the priesthood.

Newman said it is his belief that the seminary could not have operated in the Berkshires without the sanction of the Springfield Diocese. "[The seminary] had to come to ask permission and explain what they were doing," he said.

He said that Leon, who changed his name seven years age from Koscielniak and now works as a truck driver, was told by the diocese in February that it was investigating the charges.

The Catholic Church has been rocked by scandal since defrocked priest John Geoghan was accused of fondling a 10-year-old boy. Geoghan, 66, was convicted in January and sentenced to nine to 10 years in prison. The Boston archdiocese has since settled lawsuits with 86 of Geoghan's alleged victims.


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