Inmate Files Lawsuit against Two Dioceses

By Sharon Roulier and Father Bill Pomerleau
Catholic Observer
March 31, 2005

SPRINGFIELD -- A lawsuit was filed March 30 in Hampden County Superior Court against the Dioceses of Springfield and Worcester, Mass. by William E. Burnett, of Tennessee Colony, Texas, accusing five priests and two bishops of the Dioceses of Springfield and Worcester, all now deceased, of sexual abuse.

Boston Attorney Carmen L. Durso filed the suit on behalf of Burnett, 64, a native of Springfield who is currently serving a 60-year sentence in a Texas prison for the crime of murder. The suit alleges that Burnett was the victim of physical and sexual abuse by the clergy from 1950 to 1959.

The dead priests named in the suit are: Fathers Raymond J. Page, Bernard L. Doheny, George [A.] Berthiaume [deceased 12/3/85] and James Walsh, as well as Bishop Christopher J. Weldon, all of the Diocese of Springfield. Priests from the Diocese of Worcester named are: Fathers Oscar Gatineau and Worcester Bishop Timothy J. Harrington.

In his lawsuit, Burnett describes himself as a member of a faithful Catholic family who was born in 1941. He is a nephew of Father Page, a Chicopee native who was ordained for the Diocese of Springfield in 1946. Father Page became a priest of the new Diocese of Worcester in 1950.

Burnett’s lawsuit recounts a chronology of abuse by the bishops and priests, who allegedly witnessed each other abusing the young Cathedral parishioner in the cathedral church and rectory.

It also alleges that he was raped by Father Walsh at Mercy Hospital in Springfield.

Burnett also contends that he was abused at St. Anne Parish in Fiskdale, Mass., and at a cabin owned by Father Page in Holland.

Burnett’s court filing claims that he until recently, “has been unable to remember and/or to understand the damage which the several defendants have inflicted on him.”

However, the Diocese of Worcester said March 30 that it had been made aware of the inmate’s allegations “several years ago and had investigated the claims with members of his family and by a thorough examination of diocesan records.”

In a statement, Worcester Bishop Robert J. McManus said that his diocese also referred the allegations to the Worcester County District Attorney John Conte, “and notified Mr. Burnett that the allegations had been sent to the District Attorney.”

Bishop McManus said, “The Diocese of Worcester found no basis of credibility to the claims presented by Mr. Burnett.”

Under Massachusetts law, plaintiffs have three years after they realized that an alleged act of negligence has occurred to file a lawsuit. If the Diocese of Worcester can demonstrate that Burnett approached them more than three years ago, the lawsuit will almost certainly be dismissed.

Burnett’s lawsuit also names defendants “Michael Moe, numbers 1-10,” as “individuals who took part in the conspiracy to hide the instance of abuse alleged, whose names are presently unknown to the plaintiff.”

The inmate claims that “for the past fifty years, and continuing to the present time, the plaintiff, as well as many other persons, both known and unknown to him, were sexually abused, assaulted and raped by the perpetrators, and other priests who are not named in this action, because of said conspiracy.”

Last year, Hampden County District Attorney William Bennett, after an extensive grand jury investigation that included an extensive examination of diocesan files, found no evidence of a conspiracy to cover up sexual abuse in the Springfield Diocese, and dismissed the grand jury.

Conte, who has criminally prosecuted several priests in the Worcester Diocese, has never accused that diocese of conspiracy.

A March 30 statement released by Springfield Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell stated that the Springfield Diocese had no knowledge of the validity of Burnett’s charges.

“We have nothing in our records that in any way would provide support for these allegations. I would hope that the names of good priests and bishops who cannot defend themselves are not being impugned for ulterior motives. The timing and the content of the charges, as we understand them, certainly raise questions about these suits,” stated Bishop McDonnell.

In his statement, Bishop McManus said, “It is profoundly troubling that this suit is attempting to malign the reputations of Bishop Timothy J. Harrington, Msgr. Raymond Page, and Father Oscar Gatineau who had dedicated themselves to serving the people of the Worcester Diocese and, now deceased, cannot defend themselves, along with another bishop and priests of the Springfield Diocese.”

He said the lawsuit “has left the Page family heartbroken as they bear one more injustice by this nephew of Msgr. Page, as Mr. Burnett is serving a 60-year sentence for murder in Texas. We fear that it is also an injustice to the victims who seek to have their credible stories of abuse heard in order to find healing in their lives.”

Bishop McManus added, “We stand by the ‘Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People’ which states explicitly ‘When the accusation has proved to be unfounded, every step possible will be taken to restore the good name of the priest or deacon.’”

Burnett, described as a “schoolteacher-turned-bank robber” in a July 16, 1991 article in the Houston Chronicle, was sentenced to life in prison for murdering Kenneth Gardner, a retired businessman, in a Houston motel.

Burnett, who was 49 at the time of the Sept. 23, 1989 murder, had already served time in federal prison for seven bank robberies. In some of those cases, he sexually molested or pistol-whipped women tellers.

The Republican newspaper quoted relatives March 31 who cast doubt on Burnett’s story.

W. Robert Burnett, 69, who like his younger brother lived for a summer with his uncle after their father’s death, told the paper he never witnessed any behavior to suggest that Father Page was an abuser.

“When he (Burnett) became eligible for parole last year, I wrote a letter against his release and said he was a con man,” the older Burnett told The Republican.


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