Murderer Alleges Clergy Sex Abuse

By Bill Zajac
The Republican
March 31, 2005

SPRINGFIELD - Bishops Christopher J. Weldon and Timothy J. Harrington are among seven deceased priests being accused of sexual abuse by an imprisoned Texas murderer, whose brother has raised concerns about the validity of the claims.

The suit, which was filed yesterday in Hampden Superior Court by Boston lawyer Carmen L. Durso, names the Springfield and Worcester dioceses as defendants. The seven priests served in either one diocese or the other or both after the Springfield diocese was split in two in 1950 to create the Worcester diocese.

William E. Burnett, a 64-year-old Springfield native who is serving a more than 50-year sentence in prison for the 1990 murder of a retired businessman, said in the suit that he was introduced to the priests through his uncle, Monsignor Raymond J. Page, who also is accused by Burnett of abusing him. The abuse allegedly began around 1950, when the accuser was 9 years old.

The other priests named in the suit are the Revs. Bernard L. Doheny, George A. Berthiaume [deceased 12/3/85], James T. Walsh and Oscar Gatineau.

Diocesan and lay individuals expressed support for the accused priests and concerns about the accusations.

"We have nothing in our records that in any way would provide support for these allegations," said the Most Rev. Timothy A. McDonnell, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, in a statement.

"I would hope that the names of good priests and bishops who cannot defend themselves are not being impugned for ulterior motives," McDonnell's statement read.

Most Rev. Robert J. McManus, bishop of the Worcester diocese, offered a similar statement.

"The Diocese of Worcester was made aware of the allegations of abuse by Mr. William Burnett several years ago and had investigated the claims with members of his family and by a thorough examination of diocesan records. . . . The Diocese of Worcester found no basis of credibility to the claims," McManus' statement read.

The diocese referred the allegations to the Worcester County district attorney's office at that time and notified Burnett of it.

"It is profoundly troubling that this suit is attempting to malign the reputations of Bishop Timothy J. Harrington, Msgr. Raymond Page and Fr. Oscar Gatineau, who had dedicated themselves to serve the people of the Worcester Diocese and, now deceased, cannot defend themselves," the statement continued.

"It has left the Page family heartbroken as they bear one more injustice by this nephew of Msgr. Page. . . . 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," the statement read.

The suit states Weldon abused Burnett three times at St. Michael's Cathedral when Burnett was between the ages of 10 and 16.

Weldon, a native of New York City and a priest in New York until being named bishop in Springfield in 1950, created a legacy as the overseer of much construction in the 27 years he served as bishop of the Springfield diocese. He died at age 76 in 1982.

Gerald W. Hayes, a Phoenix Life Insurance Co. official who grew up in Greater Springfield, said he developed a long relationship with Weldon after meeting him when Hayes was a seventh-grader and living at what was then Brightside orphanage in West Springfield.

"He never did anything that was inappropriate or that suggested inappropriate behavior. I don't disbelieve some of these circumstances (in which abuse by some priests occurred), but this seems so out of character for Bishop Weldon," Hayes said.

The suit states Harrington abused Burnett three times at the rectory of St. Anne's Shrine in Fiskdale.

"Bishop Timothy was well known in the Springfield and Worcester dioceses as a very virtuous man and a defender for those looking for justice - the poor, the homeless, the addicted," said the Rev. Leo. J. Hoar, a Springfield diocesan priest.

Harrington, a Holyoke native, was ordained in 1946 in the Springfield diocese. In 1968, Harrington was named auxiliary bishop of the Worcester diocese and then served as bishop from 1983 through 1994. He died at age 68 in 1997.

Burnett's older brother, W. Robert Burnett, a 69-year-old retired mental health officer in the Travis County sheriff's office in Texas, discredited his brother's allegations.

"When he became eligible for parole last year, I wrote a letter against his release and said he was a con man," said Burnett.

The older Burnett said he was 14 years old when his father died and he went to live for a summer with his uncle, the Rev. Raymond Page. Burnett said he never witnessed any behavior suggesting Page was an abuser and never heard about his brother being abused until last year, when his brother said he was going to write a book about abuse.

The older Burnett said his brother has a history of hurting relatives.

The plaintiff was administered two polygraph tests in recent months, according to his lawyer.

"Some people will be shocked by the allegations. For me, it was important to have reasonable basis to come forward with allegations. The polygraph examiner, who has great qualifications, said that on both tests my client was being truthful in making the allegations of abuse," Durso said.

The plaintiff grew up in Springfield and graduated from Cathedral High School in 1959. He served as an altar boy at St. Michael's Cathedral, according to the suit. He moved to Texas several years after high school, according to a relative.

He taught high school in San Antonio, according to a Houston Chronicle story. He was described as a "schoolteacher-turned-bank robber" in a July 16, 1991, Houston Chronicle story that detailed Burnett pleading guilty to the knifing death of Kenneth Gardner, 61, in a Houston motel room.

Upon leaving the room, Burnett went to San Antonio and confessed the crime to a Catholic priest, according to the story.

Burnett served time in a federal prison for seven bank robberies, during some of which he pistol-whipped or molested female bank tellers, according to the story.

David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said Burnett's past problems with the law should not be used to discredit his accusations.

"If you told your spouse you were in a horrific accident on the highway and then walked in the house without as much as a scratch, then that would raise credibility concerns. The same can be said for victims of clergy abuse," Clohessy said.

The suit states the other priests abused Burnett between five and 10 times, except for Page, who allegedly abused his nephew 30 times.

Burnett's cousin Colleen Fish of Enfield said Burnett's behavior changed at the age of 10 or so, which is soon after his father died and when he said the abuse began.

She said he wanted to be a priest, but didn't make it through a pre-college seminary.

She said her uncle, the Rev. Raymond J. Page, was an amazing person.

"He was low-key, intellectual and great to his family," Fish said.

Page, who was the brother of Burnett's now deceased mother, grew up in Chicopee and was ordained in 1946 in the Springfield diocese.

Page was named vicar general of the Worcester diocese in 1983, when Harrington was bishop in the Worcester diocese. Page died in retirement at age 80 in 1998.

Berthiaume, a native of Southbridge, was ordained in 1945 in the Springfield diocese. After serving in many parish assignments and as administrator of St. Michael's Cathedral, he served as ecclesiastical secretary to Bishop Weldon from 1951 to 1961. Berthiaume died at age 66 in 1985.

Walsh, a Holyoke native who attended Holy Cross College, was ordained in 1949 and died in 1970. He served at parishes in Easthampton, Springfield and Westfield. Doheny was ordained in 1935 and died in 1965.

Gatineau was a Worcester diocesan priest who died in 1964.


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