Clerical Doubletalk Raises Doubt about Investigation

By Jack Kenny
The Union Leader [New Hampshire]
Downloaded September 8, 2003

THE RETURN of Father Paul Gregoire to St. Charles Borromeo Church last Sunday should have brought “closure” to the questions and the controversy that have hung over the Dover parish since the 74-year-old pastor was placed on administrative leave in December.

The suspension followed an allegation of sexual misconduct lodged by a woman who claimed the priest had touched her breast 30 years earlier when she was a teenager. Gregoire denied the charge and the diocese recently announced an investigation had uncovered “insufficient evidence to support the accusation.”

According to the diocesan news release, the Vatican had “affirmed the recommendation of Bishop (John) McCormack that Father Paul Gregoire return to active ministry.”

But some parishioners have expressed doubts about the bishop’s role in the Gregoire case. Some remain convinced their pastor was a convenient scapegoat for the bishop at a time when McCormack was under fire for his handling of clerical sex abuse allegations in the archdiocese of Boston and the diocese here was facing possible child endangerment indictments, following an investigation by the state’s attorney general.

In June, members of the pastoral council began petitioning for the pastor’s return and, in a rare statement of defiance toward a bishop, sent an open letter to newspapers calling on McCormack to “take your baggage, step aside and let somebody who is credible judge Father Gregoire.”

So what really happened? Did McCormack suspend Gregoire to take some of the heat off the diocese and himself? Was the priest’s reinstatement due to “insufficient evidence to support the accusation,” or was it a move to placate angry parishioners? The contradictory statements made by the bishop and the Rev. Edward Arsenault, chancellor of the diocese, have only added to confusion and concern about how church officials deal with allegations of this sort.

Arsenault insists the investigation was not concluded until June and, based on its findings, the bishop made his recommendation to the Holy See. But both men made previous statements indicating the case had been decided much earlier, and with an opposite conclusion.

Way back on Dec. 19, Arsenault sent an e-mail about the pastor to a Dover parishioner. “The diocesan review Board and Bishop McCormack found the evidence in this case was unambiguous,” the chancellor wrote. “The act of sexual misconduct occurred with no doubt in the mind of the Diocese Review Board or Bishop McCormack.”

Gee. It sounds like the bishop and the board had their minds made up and there was no need to confuse them with an investigation. But there was indeed a “thorough investigation,” the bishop explained in a March 24 letter to Father Gregoire’s parish council.

“The accusation has been determined to be credible by the Diocesan Review Board after a thorough investigation by the Office of the Delegate,” wrote McCormack, saying he had no plan to assign Gregoire to ministry. Now if the charge had been judged credible in March “after a thorough investigation,” how was it determined in June that there was “insufficient evidence” to support it?

“I understand that you can read that (March 24) letter and assume the investigation was complete,” Arsenault told The Associated Press. “I regret that is how it reads because the investigation was not concluded.”

Well, OK, perhaps it’s just a misunderstanding. Maybe a determination made “after a thorough investigation” really means a tentative conclusion reached while an investigation is still in progress. Maybe Arsenault’s December statement that there was “no doubt” about sexual misconduct by Father Gregoire 30 years earlier really meant that church officials were only beginning to look into the matter. It depends on what the meaning of “after” is or if a statement of “no doubt” is meant to convey a certain conclusion.

The bishop has promised to “do all I can to restore the good name” of Father Gregoire. Considering those earlier statements by both McCormack and Arsenault, the priest might wish the bishop wouldn’t help him so much.

He may well be innocent of the charge lodged against 30 years after the alleged offense. So might others of the priests who have been similarly accused and dismissed from ministry, their own good names ruined by the allegations.

We might well wonder how many of the 19 New Hampshire priests suspended by the bishop in February 2002, most of them on accusations of sexual abuse that allegedly occurred decades earlier, were also innocent. What sort of evidence, aside from the “repressed memories” of alleged victims, does the Church rely upon in evaluating such charges?

“This situation was handled no differently than any other complaint that we got,” diocesan spokesman Patrick McGee said of the Gregoire case. Perhaps that only underscores the problem.

Jack Kenny is a New Hampshire writer whose column appears regularly


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