Alleged Victim Carries Anger against Catholic Church

Associated Press State & Local Wire
June 14, 2002

The priest - a big, jolly man - coaxed him, bought him gifts. Altar boys often hung out in the rectory, decked in black lights and posters.

In 1968, Mark Belenchia was a 13-year-old in a proud Italian family in the small Delta town of Shelby. "I thought for a long time that if your name ended in a vowel you were Catholic," Belenchia says. "Being Italian and being Catholic were intertwined."

As a teen, Belenchia was one of many youths who hung out with the late Rev. Bernard Haddican at St. Mary's Parish in Shelby. Soon, the priest brought alcohol to his parties, Belenchia said.

"And one thing led to another," he says, his voice drifting off.

Belenchia, speaking publicly for the first time last week, claims Haddican sexually abused him intermittently over two or three years starting in 1968. He also says he saw others abused.

The burden and guilt of that abuse have dramatically altered Belenchia's life, he says. Officials at the Catholic Diocese of Jackson do not dispute his abuse claims.

Allegations of sex abuse by priests surfaced last week in Mississippi for the first time this year, even as U.S. bishops met in Dallas to get a handle on hundreds of allegations nationwide.

Three brothers - Kenneth Morrison, Thomas Morrison and Francis Morrison - filed a $48 million suit against the Mississippi Catholic Church last week. The suit alleges the church - including now-Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston - covered up the alleged sex abuse of the brothers when they were children in the 1970s.

Law also figures in Belenchia's story. Law was the vicar general - the number two man - of the Natchez-Jackson Diocese in the early 1970s. Belenchia says his mother informed Law about the abuse, but that Law did nothing about it.

It was only recently that Belenchia said he learned his mother - who died from terminal cancer in July 1998 - had informed Law of the abuse.

"And I remembered meeting Law" in the 1970s, Belenchia says. "I remember my mother made a real point to introduce me to him. ... She was introducing me to Law to let him physically see me."

The Archdiocese of Boston and the Catholic Diocese of Jackson did not return calls seeking comment.

Belenchia is eager to share his story, he says, despite a confidentially agreement he signed with the church in 2000, when the diocese paid him about $44,000.

In late May, news broke that the Milwaukee Archdiocese had secretly paid $450,000 to a man who alleged that Archbishop Rembert Weakland made unwanted advances on him. The news upset Belenchia, and he says he confronted Bishop William Houck in Jackson.

"I told him that it's cheaper to molest a little boy in Mississippi than it is in Wisconsin, apparently," Belenchia said. "(Houck) told me he prayed for me by name on a daily basis, which I told him wasn't necessary anymore. It wasn't doing any good."

Belenchia says to have revealed the sex abuse charges in the 1970s would have gotten his family "railroaded." He said it would have been just as difficult in the 1980s, when he was raising two boys.

Belenchia said he disclosed his secret to the Rev. Patrick Farrell, now a priest in Jackson, in the mid-1980s and that Farrell passed the word up to the then-vicar general, the Rev. Frank Cosgrove. Farrell did not return calls to The Associated Press.

In a 1999 meeting with Houck, Belenchia says Houck told him that he had never heard of any sex abuse cases before. Belenchia said the fact his case was reported in the 1980s made that claim untrue. He is not happy with the church's leadership.

"I've been in contact with Houck a couple times," he says. "One time I called him to thank him for all the calls that I got concerning my welfare and how I was doing, which happened to be a big fat zero."

Mississippi's statute of limitations for sex crimes against a minor requires that the crime must be prosecuted before the victim turns 21. The law prevented a criminal prosecution against Belenchia's abuser in the 1980s, when he says he first told church leaders. Belenchia has indicated that he will file a civil lawsuit against the church similar to the action taken by the Morrison brothers.

Belenchia believes that the abusers, and by extension the church leadership that did not expose them, will have to live with the knowledge of what happened to him and others.

"It's going to follow them for the rest of their time," he says. "As far as I'm concerned, when you go along with this, you might as well have been in the rectory at St. Mary's watching it."


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