DA Report Misleads the Public and Leaves Children at Risk
Reply to Worcester District Attorney John Conte's Clergy Abuse Report of February 2004

Worcester Voice [Worcester MA]
Downloaded February 4, 2004

In his report on clergy abuse in the Diocese of Worcester, District Attorney John Conte failed miserably to seek a criminal indictment against the Diocese of Worcester. It is clear to the public that the diocese has repeatedly engaged in criminal conduct that amounts to criminal accessory both before and after the fact. As The Worcester Voice reported on February 2, 2004, in at least one case, the diocese actively assisted one perpetrator to leave Massachusetts to avoid prosecution.

Legal scholars indicate that a corporation can indeed be prosecuted under Massachusetts law. Although a corporation cannot itself be put in jail, it can, instead, be forced to pay reparations to victims. Mr. Conte needs to read about the collective knowledge doctrine in the First Circuit case of United States vs. Bank of New England, adopted in state law by the SJC's ruling in Sunshine Properties vs. Bacon. As the First Circuit Court of Appeals clearly wrote, “corporation cannot plead innocence by asserting that the information obtained by several employees was not acquired by any one individual who then would have comprehended its full import. Rather the corporation is considered to have acquired the collective knowledge of its employees and is held responsible for their failure to act accordingly.”

And yet, from the outset, it is clear that the DA did not treat the diocesan corporation as a potential criminal target – although he had the legal precedent to do so. Instead, depositions in one of the civil suits show there was almost daily contact during this investigation between Mr. Conte's staff and the Diocese of Worcester. Shockingly, Mr. Conte's staff was forwarding information regarding their investigations of potential criminal misconduct of the victims directly to the Diocese of Worcester so that the diocese could attack the victims as “extortionists.” This information came in testimony taken under oath by Monsignor Thomas Sullivan. Monsignor Sullivan also testified that he received from Mr. Conte's office private information regarding the alleged HIV-positive status of one of the alleged victims, later proven to be false. Therefore, it is no surprise now that his report outrageously characterizes the conduct of the diocese in this crisis as that of merely an "active witness”.

Mr. Conte's report also erroneously contends that he and his staff were responsible for removal of eight priests is just plain wrong and is insulting to victims, their attorneys, and the press.

Father John Bagley was removed in February 2002 when a victim came forward and alleged he had been raped as an underage boy in the Christ the King rectory in Worcester. The victim also alleged the rape was known to the Diocese of Worcester and Bishop Timothy Harrington back as far as 1994.

In March 2002, victims caused the removal of three more priests by the Diocese of Worcester. Two victims sued the diocese and Father Lee Bartlett for alleged sexual abuse that occurred back in the late 1970s, the so-called “reek Olympics” at Bartlett’s home on Cape Cod.

Another victim identified Father Gerald Walsh as a perpetrator in 1998 but Bishop Reilly refused to take action until March 2002 when the victim secured a written confession from Father Walsh.

Another victim had been paid a sizeable settlement for abuse by Father Peter Inzerillo, was nevertheless returned to service in a Leominster parish with full knowledge of Bishop Reilly. He was removed from that parish only after parents in the parish hired legal counsel and the victim disclosed the secret settlement.

Father Chester Devlin was removed in April 2002 after an allegation of misconduct was made to Mr. Conte's office. A civil lawsuit by a victim was later filed in Worcester Superior Court.

In June of that year the mother of an alleged victim of Father Raymond Messier said this priest was caught red-handed in 1980 abusing her 9-year-old son at a camp in Charlton. The mother, who lived in Worcester at the time, reported the alleged abuse to a Worcester police officer who declined to act, she said. This woman held a meeting with Bishop Harrington shortly after this incident in the presence of a counselor at Worcester Youth Guidance Center. This mother said she received a pledge from Bishop Harrington that Father Messier would never be placed near children again. She found in 2002 that he was serving two parishes in the North County where he had access to children.

More victims came forward against Father Joe Coonan and caused his removal in August 2002. They reported that Coonan had been sexually inappropriate with them during the 1970s in Oxford. This happened before he was a priest but the alleged victims have said the abuse was well-known to school officials in Oxford at the time it happened.

Father Jean-Paul Gagnon was left in his parish after allegations of sexual misconduct arose and he was only removed after a victim filed a civil suit in 2003 in Worcester Superior Court. Yet, Father Steven Labaire had reported the abuse of this child to the Diocese of Worcester and to his pastor in 1987. The pastor, Father Roland Hebert directed Father Labaire to report the information to Monsignor Raymond Page, vicar of priests for the diocese. As we know, neither the Diocese nor Conte took any action.

Mr. Conte's office also attempts to take credit for currently prosecuting Father Donald Ouellette who allegedly stole $250,000 from a church in Fitchburg. He is charged with larceny yet sexual accusations have been made involving this priest and his use of the stolen money. Yet, the information regarding the sexual issues did not come from Mr. Conte's investigation but came from the other party allegedly involved in the misconduct.

The father of another victim reported Father John Szantyr to Conte as a possible sexual perpetrator in the late 1980s. However, the District Attorney, according to this father, refused to prosecute. Prosecution came about years later through the efforts of the victim himself.

Father Robert Kelley was recently sent back to prison after pleading guilty to raping two young girls years ago. Father Kelley was well-known to the Massachusetts State Police and Mr. Conte's office in the early 1990s. Father Kelley at that time named 17 additional young girls that he sexually abused which indicated the depth of his sickness and moral turpitude.

Father Paul M. Desilets is still in Canada awaiting extradition to face Worcester County Grand Jury charges that he molested more than a dozen boys in Bellingham.

The prosecution of Rev. Andrew J. Bierkan of Sutton, a Protestant minister, was attributed to the Sutton police. Prosecution of Father James D. Campbell and Brother Louis Laperle originated with Trooper Thomas Ryan of Massachusetts State Police who has since left Mr. Conte's CPAC unit.

None of these priests were removed because of investigation by the district attorney's office or Mr. Conte. And so far none have resulted in criminal prosecution by Mr. Conte's office. The only intervention known by Mr. Conte and his staff involved the written confession that the alleged victim got from Father Walsh, who at the time was a chaplain for the Massachusetts State Police. The confession was given to state police for investigation by the victim. It instead was turned over to the institution that itself should have been the handled as a potential criminal target, the Diocese of Worcester. The victim had not intended for it to go there and he did not give his permission for its release to church authorities.

Mr. Conte said he prosecuted four priests before the current crisis erupted in 2002. But he reported on the other hand that he investigated 57 priests of the Diocese of Worcester who were accused of sexual misconduct. He said his failure to prosecute most of the 57 priests was because the statute of limitations had run out for criminal prosecution. However, he has been in office for the past 27 years. If he had looked into these matters during his tenure in office, he might have found the statute of limitations was still in effect. We know he had some previous knowledge of the problems involving clergy because there was much media attention during the 1980’s.

In conclusion, Mr. Conte's contention that his priority is keeping children safe is not backed by his actions. Instead of investigating the real criminal diocesan corporation, the victims themselves have been investigated and attacked. No wonder that in midst of it all, Mr. Conte gave the diocese significant contributions from his own campaign funds.

If Mr. Conte really wanted to protect children, he would do well to review church protection policies placed in effect by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the so-called “Charter for the Protection of the Young.” A sharp investigator would find that the Charter had to go to Rome for “approval” or “recognitio” by Cardinal Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (C.D.F.). It emerged as the “Essential Norms” for handling these matters but only involving priests and deacons, with bishops noticeably absent. One Canon Law commentator, Monsignor Michael Higgins, had this to say about how the protection charter was eviscerated in Rome. “The congregation will either call the case to itself or notify the bishop/eparch how to proceed (norm 8A). The word, how, is an addition to the revised text from the Nov. 2002 USCCB meeting. It suggests that the C.D.F. may require a process that differs in some respects from that currently found in the two codes. In the light of this, ordinaries/ hierarchs, judges, promoters of justice and advocates should all look at any communication from the C.D.F. very carefully.”

Here’s what a very careful look at the Essential Norms themselves reveals in light of Cardinal Ratzinger’s insertion of “how.” “The necessary observance of the canonical norms internal to the Church is not intended in any way to hinder the course of any civil action that may be operative. At the same time, the Church reaffirms her right to enact legislation binding on all her members concerning the ecclesiastical dimensions of the delict of sexual abuse of minors.”

More smoke and mirrors by the church, a “look the other way” attitude from law enforcement, and children that are still at risk!

Faced with this outrage the Voice may now seek alternative legal remedies. The Voice is looking at the possibility of having Mr. Conte brought before a superior court judge for clarification of whether rulings regarding openness of records in other dioceses of the Commonwealth were followed by the District Attorney's office in Worcester.

Finally, we can and will seek to have this information presented to the Grand Jury without the participation of Mr. Conte’ office. If he won’t do the job he was elected to do, The Voice and others will do it for him.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.