Bishop's Deposition Tops Two Weeks of Controversy

By Bill Pomerleau
The Catholic Observer [Springfield MA]
Downloaded October 5, 2003

SPRINGFIELD - Repeating under oath what he had earlier told the media, Springfield Bishop Thomas L. DuprZ adamantly denied Sept. 29 that he had ever spoken or had knowledge of destruction of records about Father Richard Lavigne. "I did not," replied Bishop DuprZ when asked directly by diocesan attorney Edward McDonough Jr., "Did you make the statements attributed to you by Father Scahill?"

In a front page article in the Sept. 17 edition of The Republican newspaper, Father James Scahill said the bishop had "announced that fortunately for the church of Springfield, upon his retirement, he destroyed many personal and personnel files" at a March 2002 meeting of the diocesan presbyteral council.

"I never would have said Bishop Weldon would have destroyed papers. I never heard that or got that from any source. I never would have said that because I do not know that. I do not have knowledge that church documents were destroyed by anyone," the bishop insisted during his 90-minute deposition at a Springfield law office.

He repeated his contention that the only time he mentioned anything concerning Bishop Weldon and records was when he informally recalled a story he had heard second-hand from diocesan attorney John Egan. Egan told the bishop that after the late bishop's death in 1982, the late Msgr. David Welch served as the executor of his estate.

In settling his affairs, he returned a few personal documents to the chancery, and discarded some personal items; Bishop DuprZ said he heard from Egan.

Egan knew about what Msgr. Welch did because he was the attorney who helped settle the late bishop's estate, Bishop DuprZ testified. Bishop DuprZ then fielded several questions from attorney John Stobierski on the dioceseas record keeping practices during Bishop Dupreas years in chancery ministry.

Stobierski, who now represents 21 individuals suing the diocese, asked about the mid-1990s archival work of Father Richard Meehan. Father Meehan was removed from parish ministry in 1994 when a credible accusation of sexual misconduct was presented to the diocese.

After being sent for an "advanced psycho-sexual evaluation," it was determined that he could do office work that would not put him in contact with children. But that changed after the 2002 Dallas norms by the U.S. bishops, which required that he be removed from all work in the diocese, said the bishop. "

Father Meehan did not have access to secret records" where allegations of abuse would have been filed, he testified.

Prior to Father Meehan's arrival in the chancery position, a Catholic Observer reporter had access to the general archives located in the chancery as he prepared a history of the diocese. The partially disorganized archives then included boxes of paperwork accumulated from several past bishops of Springfield.

Bishop Weldon's boxes, which were apparently placed in the archives after his death, included routine thank you notes from individuals whom the bishop had met, plans for construction projects in the diocese, and notes from the then-Priestsa Senate and Bishop's Commission for the Clergy kept by Msgr. Welch, who was the editor of the Observer.

None of the materials contained any references to sexual misconduct. By prior arrangement, Bishop DuprZ's deposition was suspended so he could meet another engagement. Stobierski told reporters it would not resume until a judge gives him permission to question the bishop on a wide variety of topics, not just the alleged destruction of documents.

Father Scahill also testified Sept. 29 in a two-hour deposition closed to the media. In a brief prepared statement after the testimony, he thanked the media for covering the issue of sexual abuse, and said, "Today, in the fashion of a deposition, I testified truthfully to the facts."

Father Scahill did not elaborate on his testimony.

Other developments

The dueling depositions were just one development in a near-non stop flood of misconduct news and publicity in recent days:

* The Republican reported Sept. 20 that the diocese had requested a delay in five of Stobierski's lawsuits until complications arising from the bankruptcy of one of its insurers are resolved.

* On Sept. 22, the local chapter of Voice of the Faithful commented on the dioceseas recent attempt to resolve the sexual abuse scandal, which it said "has demoralized our diocese." Bishop DuprZ responded he "would respectfully disagree with that." He told the group that the priests and laity of the diocese "are still standing with their heads held high. They understand that this is a complicated issue and they understand that there is no credible evidence to suggest a cover-up here in the Springfield Diocese and that our situation is vastly different from that in Boston."

To the group's deep concern "about efforts to dismiss cases based on defenses such as First Amendment Charitable Immunity," he said that every claim before the diocese "should be given consideration on a case by case basis. Nonetheless, it is also our belief that we should not throw away our defenses, especially those based on the First Amendment and the laws of Massachusetts," the bishop said in a written statement.

Also on Sept. 22, Stobierski called another press conference to announce that he had filed two more lawsuits against the diocese. Trina Cysz, then a high school student at St. Mary Parish in Lee, alleges that Father John Bonzagni "put his arms around the waist and pulled her into him."

The now 30-year-old Belchertown woman claimed in her suit that the priest twice tried to rub against her, and once held her after administering the Sacrament of Reconciliation. She stated that in each case, she pulled away and Father Bonzagni did not pursue her.

Stobierski told reporters that the priest's alleged actions were "not what is commonly perceived to be sexual abuse, but it's still sexual abuse."

Father Bonzagni, a canon lawyer on the diocesan tribunal, "steadfastly maintains his innocence," according to diocesan spokesman Mark Dupont. Dupont said Cysz never appeared before the misconduct commission because Stobierski insisted on accompanying her, a violation of the independent board's procedures.

The all-lay panel allows complainants and the accused to be accompanied by lawyers during their appearances before it. But parties cannot be accompanied by an attorney who has filed a lawsuit against the diocese. Martin Bono, a Chicopee man alleging misconduct by Father Meehan, had initially appeared before the commission without a lawyer. After Father Meehan denied the accusation against him during a separate appearance, the commission suggested some time later that the two parties appear together in an effort to resolve the conflicting testimony.

Father Meehan agreed to a joint appearance on the condition that he be accompanied by a lawyer. Bono then ended his involvement with the commission after it was suggested that he might also want to bring an attorney, Dupont said. Judge Sweeney

* On Sept. 24, lawyers for alleged abuse victims and the diocese made preliminary presentations on the issue of charitable immunity before Hampden Superior Court Judge Constance Sweeney.

Massachusetts law says that public charities cannot be sued for harms caused by their agents before September 1971. Egan argued that even if the diocese acted irresponsibly in its assignment of priests, the law says that it cannot be found responsible for its actions. Stobierski argued that he might be able to prove that the church's misconduct was outside of its charitable mission if he is successful in gathering additional evidence that might be uncovered once he gets access to alleged church documents on abuse. Sweeney may rule on the matter in the next two weeks.

* On Sept. 28, the Sunday edition of The Republican featured another article on Maurice E. DeMontigny, a former religious education director at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Springfield who is supporting Susan Morris in her lawsuit against the diocese.

DeMontigny, who identified himself as a "confidante" of Bishop Weldon, said in a recent court affidavit that "I am sure that Father Griffin would have directly reported to Bishop Weldon any allegations of abuse" by Father Lavigne in the 1960s. He did not contend in his affidavit that his then-pastor, the late Father Thomas Griffin, told him he reported Father Lavigne to the diocese.

De Montigny's suspicions were investigated by the late Springfield Bishop John Marshall in 1993. After searching files and interviewing all living witnesses, Bishop Marshall found no evidence of a complaint by Father Griffin. The late Auxiliary Bishop Leo C. OaNeil denied to the bishop and his lawyer that he ever "disapprovingly discussed Father Lavigne's close activities with boys" after he arrived at St. Catherine's in 1968, a source told the Observer.

Bishop Marshall alluded to DeMontignyas complaint in a March 15, 1994 public letter announcing the settlement of 17 lawsuits against the diocese. "A claim was made that diocesan representatives knew or should have known about Father Lavigne's misconduct and we did nothing to prevent it. However, the bishops at the time and the priests, who lived with Father Lavigne, maintain adamantly that they know nothing of such activity any more than did the parents and families of the young persons, who made the allegations," wrote Bishop Marshall.

DeMontigny is the uncle of Raymond and Joseph Gouin, who made claims of misconduct against Father Lavigne and the diocese in 1992. Their claims were included in the 1994 settlement. DeMontigny does not claim in his current affidavit that he or anyone else complained to any church officials about harm to his nephews before 1992.


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