Norwich Bishop Called Lenient in Maine Case

By Tom Breen
Journal Inquirer (Manchester, CT)
March 3, 2005

Is it worse for a Roman Catholic priest to give muddled homilies and run a private charity inefficiently, or to post graphic descriptions of his homosexual encounters with a subordinate on an Internet site featuring photographs of naked men and a priest with his arm around a young boy?

That's a question parishioners at St. Bernard Catholic Church in the Rockville section of Vernon could ask, based on the difference in treatment accorded to the Rev. Justinian B. Rweyemamu, a parochial vicar there, and to priests in the Diocese of Portland, Maine, where the current bishop of Norwich was an auxiliary bishop until 2003.

The bishop, the Most Rev. Michael R. Cote, has never been accused of any wrongdoing in Maine. But some Catholics there say Cote and his superior, Bishop Joseph Gerry, were too slow to discipline three priests involved with a pornographic Internet site -- including one priest who lived with Cote.

By contrast, the Norwich diocese has been swift in its efforts to remove Rweyemamu from the parish, charging him first with ministerial problems like poor homilies and later with unspecified mismanagement of a private charity.

A tale of two priests

In 2000 two Maine priests were exposed as being behind a members-only Internet site catering to homosexual priests. The site featured pornographic photos, testimonials from priests and a bishop about sexual conquests, and at least one photo of a priest with his arm draped seductively around a young boy.

A third priest in the Portland diocese was involved to a lesser extent in the site but when the site was disclosed the diocese refused to identify him.

As for the two who were named, Cote removed one from ministry, while the other had already been removed from active ministry after being acquitted of charges of sexually assaulting a young girl.

But the priest removed by Cote was back at work at another parish in the state within months after receiving a positive evaluation from a therapist, a reinstatement Cote says he did not approve.

Three years later, after a new round of allegations against the priest removed by Cote, the third priest involved in the Internet site was identified, but by a group of Catholic laity rather than by the diocese.

That priest is the Rev. Normand P. Richard, who served at Holy Family Parish in Old Town, Maine, while Cote lived at the rectory there in the course of serving as auxiliary bishop. When Richard was identified, the diocese declined to discipline him, saying it already had done so in 2000 but declining to say how.

That approach contrasts with Cote's treatment of Rweyemamu, who has been ordered to leave his rectory, has been threatened with the loss of his salary and pension, and has been fired from his job as a prison chaplain. Some criticisms of the priest's performance were made by Cote but they have been overshadowed by the bishop's focus on a private charity run by Rweyemamu.

Cote has not been accused of protecting Richard or other priests in sex scandals. In fact, this year Cote secured the removal from the Norwich diocese of the Rev. Paul Pinard, a retired priest living at a retreat in Stonington, because of allegations of sexual misconduct long ago.

But members of the Maine chapter of Voice of the Faithful -- a group of Catholic laity formed in response to sexual abuse in the Boston archdiocese -- say that Cote, as a member of the church hierarchy, "minimized" the sexual misconduct in the Portland diocese.

The group, which exposed Richard's role in the Internet site, called on then-Bishop Joseph Gerry to remove Richard from active ministry -- a call that was ignored, the group says.

The group charges that Cote, who lived at the rectory with Richard, did nothing to address their concerns.

In response to written questions from the Journal Inquirer, Cote's spokeswoman, Jacqueline Keller, provided a copy of a letter the bishop sent to Norwich diocese priests and deacons in 2003, after a report in The Day of New London. The letter states that Cote was responsible for removing one of the Maine priests from the ministry but does not mention Richard.

Keller referred to the Portland diocese any further questions about what happened in Maine.

A shocking revelation

The scandal began in 2000, when a Catholic organization in Illinois called the Roman Catholic Faithful discovered an Internet site called "St. Sebastian's Angels." It was described in detail by Maine newspapers at the time, notably the Portland Press Herald and the Bangor Daily News.

The Internet site featured photographs and e-mails involving Catholic priests who were members of the site and who sent e-mails discussing everything from sexual conquests to obscene diatribes against figures in the Catholic hierarchy like Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a powerful Vatican official.

It also featured a photograph of a priest with his arm around a young boy. The photo was captioned: "This is not my current lover."

Word of the Internet site broke before the sexual misconduct scandals in Boston focused national attention on sexual abuse by Catholic clergy. At the time, groups like Dignity USA, which opposes the Catholic Church's policy on homosexuality, argued that the furor over the Internet site was an indictment of the church's sexual dogma and argued that the site's creator shouldn't be punished for it.

The site's creator was the Rev. John Harris, a priest in Sabattus, Maine. When the site was exposed, Cote removed Harris from his parish. The priest was sent to an out-of-state treatment facility for several months before being reinstated at a parish in Rangeley.

A second Maine priest, the Rev. Antonin Caron, also was identified by the Portland diocese in 2000 as having participated in the Internet site. Although below the retirement age for priests, Caron had been classified as retired since his 1994 acquittal in a trial on charges of sexually assaulting a girl.

Returned to retired status

During the investigation of the Internet site, Caron was barred from performing priestly duties, though he had not been assigned to a parish since his acquittal. After the investigation the diocese returned him to retired status, allowing him to remain housed by the church and to receive a pension.

A third priest also was acknowledged by the Portland diocese as having participated in the Internet site but in 2000 the diocese refused to identify him, saying he had only occasionally sent e-mails to the site and was not seriously involved with it.

Three years later that priest was identified as Richard. In the meantime, the Maine chapter of Voice of the Faithful began urging the diocese to investigate Harris.

Paul Kendrick, co-founder of the Maine lay group, said in a recent interview that Harris was not singled out because he was homosexual but because of the Internet site's lurid content, especially the photo of the boy.

No 'anti-gay agenda'

"We don't have any anti-gay agenda or anything like that," Kendrick said. "It was the picture of the kid that upset us. What we were saying to the diocese was: "Hey, there's some smoke here and there might be a fire.'"

It's unclear when more serious allegations against Harris emerged but in 2002 the diocese forwarded a report about sexual misconduct by Harris to the Maine attorney general.

Harris was accused of swimming, boating, and sitting in a hot tub naked with children at a private summer camp in the early 1980s. There also were reports that a photo had been taken of Harris naked with children.

Although the report on Harris was provided to the Maine attorney general in 2002, it wasn't until August 2003 that Harris announced to his parish in Rangeley that he was taking a leave of absence to pursue postgraduate studies.

In the letter Cote sent to priests and deacons in the Norwich diocese in 2003, he wrote that he had removed Harris from the ministry in 2000 and that Harris was moved to a different parish only after getting a positive evaluation from a therapist.

Harris was not removed in 2002 when the diocese began its investigation because no accuser from the summer camp had come forward, only an adult who reported seeing Harris naked with children, according to Cote.

"The difficulty with this case was that a victim never surfaced," Cote wrote.

"The dilemma for the bishop of Portland," Cote wrote, referring to Gerry, "was a matter of justice and fairness to the priest. He took very seriously the fact that he was shepherd of one of his priests and at the same time shepherd of a possible victim of abuse."

Copies made of Web site

Upon the latest revelations about Harris, Kendrick learned that the Illinois group, Roman Catholic Faithful, had kept copies of the pages of the "St. Sebastian's Angels" Internet site, even though the site had been taken off the Internet in 2000.

Those pages, which included records of e-mails sent to the site, enabled Kendrick to identify the third Maine priest involved.

That priest was Richard, who was assigned to Holy Family Parish in Old Town, living in the same rectory to which Cote had been assigned when he was named auxiliary bishop of Portland.

Richard's e-mails, while sexually explicit, did not mention children and he never was charged with a crime.

But the e-mails were troubling from a Catholic perspective, since Richard went into detail about his homosexual liaisons and talked about confessing his sins to a nearby priest he felt comfortable with "because he had made a pass at me."

In particular, Richard discussed a sexual affair he had with a deacon studying for the priesthood under his supervision. Richard had been disciplined for that affair by the diocese in 1991.

Roman Catholic priests, regardless of their sexual orientation, are required to remain celibate and refrain from sexual activity.

Kendrick said he was surprised, after the diocese confirmed Richard was the third priest involved with the Internet site, that no action was taken against him.

"The diocese here made it seem like he was in and out of the Web site in a month," Kendrick said, even though the e-mails Richard sent extended over about a year.

When Richard's name was revealed, diocesan spokeswoman Sue Bernard told the Portland Press Herald that no disciplinary action would be taken against him since he had been "internally disciplined" in 2000.

"We are talking about someone's personal sin being made public," Bernard told the newspaper. "Do we expect more from our priests? Of course we do. But this should be a matter of internal discipline or private discipline."

'This is about sin'

"This is about sin, and we are a church of sinners," Bernard said at the time.

The diocese confirmed that it had disciplined Richard when it learned of the Internet site but had not suspended him from his ministry and had not required him to undergo treatment. It would not say how he was disciplined.

Kendrick's group was unhappy with what it saw as leniency for Richard and unhappy that the diocese knew of the summer camp allegations against Harris a year before he left the Rangeley parish.

"If a teacher at the local school was involved in a Web site like this, he'd lose his job," Kendrick said. "Cote was around for all that. He knew about the whole deal."

In 2003, just as the new allegations against Harris were being made public and shortly after Cote's move to Norwich, his spokeswoman told the New London paper that Cote had not made the decision to reinstate the priest.

But Kendrick said that didn't matter, since Cote knew of both Harris' past and Richard's involvement in the Internet site.

"Cote is a minimizer," Kendrick said.

'Maintain high standards'

Richard was identified publicly in September 2003, a month before Cote apparently launched an investigation into Buguruka Orphan and Community Development, the charity run by Rweyemamu, according to a letter from Monsignor Thomas R. Bride, the Norwich Diocese's vicar general.

Rweyemamu said he wasn't aware of any investigation until almost a year later, after he criticized the bishop's decision not to appoint either himself or another priest at St. Bernard to a temporary administrative post there.

Since then Cote has ordered Rweyemamu to leave St. Bernard, threatened to withhold his salary and pension, and withdrawn his support for Rweyemamu's prison chaplaincy, effectively getting the priest fired from that state job.

In January Cote sent a written statement to the Journal Inquirer about his decision to remove Rweyemamu.

"Naturally, no bishop ever wants to be put into a position where he is forced to take strong action against a priest," Cote wrote. "However, sadly, it is sometimes necessary to do so in order to maintain the high standards to which we all must hold our priests today."

No wrongdoing specified

No one involved in the dispute has yet specified wrongdoing by Rweyemamu in connection with BOCED.

In fact, in the January letter Cote sent to Rweyemamu ordering him to leave the rectory at St. Bernard, the bishop did not even mention BOCED, citing instead four complaints about Rweyemamu's ministry -- none of which has been mentioned by the diocese in public since then.

In a letter sent to Rweyemamu on Nov. 19, 2004, during the early stages of the dispute, Cote wrote, "The issue of your position as parochial vicar at St. Bernard's is a separate issue from the issues associated with BOCED."

A letter Cote wrote to St. Bernard parishioners said a diocesan investigation of BOCED has produced 800 pages of documentation. He added that the documentation could not be made public without Rweyemamu's permission.

But Rweyemamu has given his permission more than once. Most recently, after Cote sent his letter to the parish, Rweyemamu's lawyer, Harold Burbank, said a letter asking the bishop to make the documents public had been sent to the diocese.

"The Norwich diocese may release his personnel file to the public and any responsible authority for their complete inspection," Burbank said of Rweyemamu.

Rweyemamu appealing

Rweyemamu is appealing to the Vatican Cote's decision to remove him from St. Bernard and is pursuing a civil employment discrimination complaint against the diocese.

For its part, BOCED plans to post audit reports from both American and African auditors on its Internet site, according to Burbank, who is also a board member.

Meanwhile, the Diocese of Portland still lists the Rev. Normand P. Richard as pastor of Holy Family Parish in Old Town.


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