Allegations against Former Lowell Priest Have Rocked a Tightly Knit Parish

Lowell Sun (Lowell, MA)
July 6, 2002

It must have been a proud moment for the parishioners of St. Louis de France church in Lowell in 1988, when one of their own came home to minister to them.

The Rev. Richard O. Matte had returned to the parish he was born into, whose parochial school he attended. He was ordained there in 1964. He was one of them. And in a parish built by immigrants whose descendants had stayed close to home over generations, whose lives often revolved often around the church's spiritual and social lives, that was meaningful.

As a priest, he had arrived with the considerable power and influence of the church.

Derek Mousseau's family's roots in St. Louis de France parish also run deep. Both sides of his family attended the parish for generations. His great-grandparents were married in the church in 1928.

Matte visited the classrooms of St. Louis de France School to introduce himself. Mousseau was in sixth grade and served as an altar boy.

Now 26, Mousseau claims he was molested by Matte the following school year, and several times after that.

When Matte came home to Lowell, claims Mousseau, he didn't stop simply because he was among family and friends.

Mousseau is among those who have filed civil lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Boston for an unspeakable sin they say priests used their standing and authority as men of God to sexually abuse them. They believe the Archdiocese knew what was going on and covered it up.

By late 1992, Matte was gone. He left behind a parish that still reads the papers and watches TV. What they've seen and heard in recent months about their former priest has been hard to digest.

He was, after all, one of them. A prodigal son come home to the family.

St. Louis wasn't the first Franco-American parish in Lowell, but the nearly 700 families of Centralville needed a church closer to their own community than offered by St. Joseph, across the Merrimack River on Lee Street. In 1904, the Archdiocese established St. Louis. Three years later, St. Louis de France School opened, with nuns from the Sister of Assumption as teachers.

The church's ethnicity has broadened Asian and Hispanic families joined the community as the years went on but its origins remain visible. Modest homes line streets with signs that read "Boisvert" and "Bealieu," named for those who donated land for the church. It was built and still stands on West Sixth Street. Sundays at 10, there's a Mass that is celebrated at least partly in French.

The school, kindergarten through eighth grade, still offers a Catholic education, overseen by nuns.

As the nation's Roman Catholics struggle with the abuse that has led to a crisis within their church, St. Louis de France parishioners are said to be reeling at allegations against Matte.

The parish's pastor and some longtime members either didn't return phone calls or declined to discuss the priest, who is now retired and living in South Dennis, with an unpublished phone number. Matte consistently denied the allegations to church officials.

Matte's sister, Patricia Hardy, said she would "rather not comment." Her husband, Gerard Hardy, is the deacon at St. Louis de France.

Fleurette Boutin, the parish's longtime secretary, who served during Matte's stay, said the subject was "unbelievably difficult" and declined to speak about the priest. Her son, Mike Boutin, is also a priest.

"Nobody's going to say anything," warned one longtime parishioner who asked to remain anonymous. "People are astounded. When it came out, they were astonished at these charges. Sexual abuse? It broke people's hearts, and some still don't believe he was capable of doing that."

He was "very popular," the parishioner added. "It's weird to say now, but he did a lot here. He was accessible, and ran a friendly rectory. This isn't something you can see on someone. "

Silence is the enemy for one organization that hopes to irrevocably alter the way the church is run.

Voice of the Faithful has swelled in numbers since its organization in Wellesley following the breaking of the Boston archdiocese scandal. It has a credo: "Keep the faith, change the church."

The group, which has met in Chelmsford's St. Mary's parish and at Lowell's Holy Ghost parish, has more than 14,000 members in 240 parishes in 40 states and 20 countries. Members says they are longtime Catholics who want to change the culture of the church, where a hierarchy has overseen a passive laity. They're committed to Catholicism, but support abuse victims, support priests with integrity, and hope to change the church from within.

"I think it's absolutely devastating to people to hear this of someone they know," says Mary Ann Keyes, a member of Voice of the Faithful. "And priests of integrity are blown out of the water by this. Many of them knew these people, but never suspected them of any of this.

"And what the parishioners are saying in their living rooms is, boy, are we teed off."

"It's like a terrible family tragedy," says Mary Calcaterra, vice president of Voice of The Faithful. "Or a family secret, like a misbehaving child. It's perceived as something that would bring disgrace to the family, so they only talk about it within the family, and no one talks about it publicly.

"There's a tremendous sense of reverence for the church, and to be disgraced by a priest in your parish can be horrible."

Historically, she says, "we've not only been very deferential to the priests, but allowed the church to function under a hierarchy, and we follow. And silence does the same thing that happens when it is used in the family if the crisis is not addressed, it becomes more and more dysfunctional."

One survivor of priest abuse recently told a gathering of VOTF that "you're really going through what we went through years ago. You feel betrayed. You trusted that priest."

Mousseau says Matte fondled him. The abuse continued on several occasions, on church property, and on a trip to Cape Cod, until his sophomore year in high school.

Mousseau says that despite battling depression over the years, he kept it all inside. Finally, last winter, after he saw Matte's name in newspaper articles regarding abuse, it all spilled out to his wife, who he had married only months earlier, in September.

He contacted the District Attorney's office, and was told there was nothing they could do for him his complaint fell outside the statute of limitations.

In April, Mousseau filed a civil lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Boston, naming Matte as well.

He was reluctant to step into the public eye. Would anyone believe him?

Now, he's hoping other local victims come forward.

According to a thick packet of internal church documents Matte was a molester whose string of sexual assaults date back to 1967, in several parishes: In Lowell, in Pepperell, at St. Joseph's parish, and during other assignments in Salem, at Xaverian High School in Westwood and in parishes in Malden and Methuen.

Among the allegations is that Matte sexually abused his own nephew; sexually abused four adopted and foster children under the care of a single family during his tenure in Pepperell; that he fondled a 14-year-old girl who had gone to ask if her recently deceased father was "in heaven"; that after raping an altar boy in Pepperell, the priest told the boy he would "go straight to hell" if he told anyone.

Other papers say that Matte sexually assaulted a boy who had gone to confide in him after being sexually abused by another priest, Rev. Richard Buntel. According to documents, Buntel began "violent sexual abuse" of the 14-year-old boy, and was soon giving the boy marijuana, cocaine and showing him pornography. When the boy turned to Matte, he was sexually abused again.

Matte did turn in another priest, the Rev. Paul M. Desilets, after he heard that Desilets had molested at least one boy at Assumption Parish in Bellingham. But according to papers, he wrote to Desiliets' superiors only after [unsuccessfully] trying to abuse the boy himself.

One boy claimed he fought off Matte so hard he broke the priest's finger.

There was apparently a saying among students as Xaverian High School: "Look out for Father Matte."

Apparently, the first of the allegations against Matte showed up at the Archdiocese in Boston in 1992, signed by "a concerned mother" from the St. Louis parish.

She wrote that Matte "is always surrounded by boys who are at the rectory day and night, not to mention his house at the Cape or motels in Canada. I do not allow my son to go anywhere near him, especially after he called him 'honey.'"

She asks for an investigation "before something tragic happens."

When Matte arrived, Mousseau found him to be a bit "more open" than the priests he'd known before. He describes Matte as "energetic" and "charismatic. He wanted to be your friend."

"He'd come into the school and talk to us, and invite us into the rectory," Mousseau says, sitting on a couch in his Lowell home. "It was more open. At recess, we'd go have lunch with him. None of us had been inside the rectory before, but he told us to come by any time."

One Friday night when Mousseau was in seventh grade, he was injured at a CYO dance. An eighth-grader kicked him in the groin.

Mousseau recalls Matte visiting his classroom a few days later, announcing that if he ever caught anyone doing this, they would be suspended.

"He called me out and into the third-floor bathroom at school. And he said, 'show me.' He insisted. And that was the first time. It was just touching with me, there was no rape involved."

He says the incidents lasted "until before I was a sophomore in high school. It didn't happen every day, maybe as long as six months between occurrences." He says he does not remember specifically how many times he was touched by the priest.

"But in between, there was a lot of inappropriate talk about masturbation, grabbing genitals, joking about it. That [happened] about every day. But a lot of the jokes I didn't even get, I was so young."

[In Matte's personnel file, there is a document from another priest, "Father Magni," expressing concern over Matte's behavior. It says Matte referred to "the size of genitals in front of kids. He is touchy with kids pinching them in the rear and hugging them in public."]

Mousseau says five to 10 would hang around the rectory, sometimes answering phones. None showed any concern.

Matte also took kids to Cape Cod for weekend treks, and Mousseau says that he was molested by the priest on the first of two trips there.

"He insisted we call him Uncle Dick at the Cape," Mousseau says. "He said people might talk if we called him Father Matte."

The priest became something of a "father figure" to Mousseau, whose own parents had divorced. Mousseau says Matte quietly paid half his tuition for his freshman year at Lowell Catholic High School.

"And he'd listen if you had a problem."

Mousseau switched to Lowell High School for his sophomore year. He was hospitalized for depression that year, and again during his junior year.

Mousseau recalls Matte's departure, and his return to St. Louis parish a few month later, in January 1993, to say a final Mass.

"The church was packed."

He kept in contact with the priest.

"A lot of times that's when it would come back to me," he says. "Other than that, I tried to block it out. There were times when I'd think, maybe I'm just thinking this up, but I knew I wasn't."

In January, the priest called Mousseau to wish him a happy birthday.

"I found it sort of odd," Mousseau says. "He said his health was not good and that the archdiocese really screwed him. Of course, later I found out he was getting a full pension. He told me, you know who your real friends are and that there were only a handful of people he talked to."

He told Mousseau, as he "always" did, that he was "very special," and that he loved him.

In February, Mousseau saw Matte's name mentioned as an accused pedophile priest.

"I was becoming upset and depressed, and my wife started asking if I was all right. No, nothing happened to me, I said. Then, I said things like, I really hope nothing happened to any of my childhood friends."

Finally, he told his wife about the first time.

After filing the lawsuit, and going public, he feared that Matte "would try to contact me. I still have nightmares about him. I jump up in the middle of the night. I don't sleep well."

"I really think there were others from St. Louis who were abused. I want them to come out, not necessarily to file lawsuits, but for counseling and to get help if they were hurt. I just know I'm not alone. There's more of us out there.

"In time, I think I'll get over being abused, but I don't know if I'll be able to put the same trust in somebody. I didn't know who that person was. Why did he do those things for me? Just getting trust, that's the hardest part to deal with."


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