Priest Removed from Ministry, New Lawsuits Filed before Legal Deadline

By Bill Pomerleau
Iobserve [Springfield MA]
January 7, 2005

SPRINGFIELD – As a legal deadline for effectively filing lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct by priests approached this week, a Boston attorney filed lawsuits alleging that three priests, a woman religious and a Boy Scout leader had abused five men decades ago.

A Greenfield attorney also filed six lawsuits alleging that five diocesan priests had abused minors.

Meanwhile, the Diocese of Springfield announced the removal from ministry of a priest named in one of the lawsuits.

Father Michael Devlin, 62, has been placed under the constraints of the Dallas Norms, the diocese announced Dec. 29, alluding to the requirement in U.S. church law that any priest credibly judged to have abused a minor cannot function as a priest.

In October the diocesan review board began its investigation of an allegation that Father Devlin, until then chaplain at Holyoke’s Providence Place, had abused a minor while he was a parochial vicar at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in West Springfield.

He served at the parish from July 1974 to February 1975. He then became a chaplain at Baystate Medical Center, living at and assisting with weekend Masses at All Souls Parish in Springfield. The individual alleging abuse told the board that his abuse continued while Father Devlin was at All Souls.

Father Devlin has denied the accusations against him. His civil attorney, John Bryson of Chicopee, told The Catholic Observer that his client "is very upset with the treatment he has received from the diocese."

Bryson noted that Father Devlin’s accuser has retained John Stobierski, the Greenfield attorney who earned over $2.5 million after settling abuse claims against the church, to sue the diocese. He also said that the church’s investigation of his client, unlike the civil judicial system, did not give Father Devlin the presumption of innocence.

Father Devlin has also retained an out-of-state canon lawyer. Under canon law, those accused of a crime have a right to have their case heard by the church’s judicial system.

If Father Devlin pursues his claim of innocence, the diocese will forward the results of its investigation to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which determines how the canonical investigation will proceed. The Vatican office can decide to try the case itself, or refer it to Springfield’s canonical tribunal.

Laura Failla Reilly, the diocesan victim advocate, told the Observer that Father Devlin was placed on a leave of absence in October when the Diocesan Review Board first concluded that the accusations against him merited further investigation.

While the investigation was underway, no public statement was issued. Father Devlin was interviewed as part of the review board process, Failla Reilly said.

Upon the completion of the investigation, the review board made its recommendation to Bishop McDonnell who then publicly announced Father Devlin’s removal from ministry on Dec. 29.

If Father Devlin is pursuing his canonical rights, he would be at least the second diocesan priest in recent years to appeal his suspension to the Vatican.

Canon law requires a bishop to keep priests whom they believe guilty of abuse out of ministry indefinitely. There have been only a handful of recent cases across the United States where a priest has successfully obtained a non-guilty verdict in church courts, leading to their reinstatement.

New lawsuits

In an unrelated development, Boston attorney Carmen Durso filed a lawsuit Jan. 29 alleging that the diocese and several unnamed individuals had conspired to enable and conceal the sexual crimes of priests.

The suit claims that one plaintiff, then 16, was subject to a "sudden and violent attack" by the late Father Thomas J. O’Connor. His abuse continued in 1952-1953 at St. Patrick Church in Monson, according to the suit.

Two other plaintiffs say they were sexually abused by the late Father J. Roy Jenness at Blessed Sacrament Church in Greenfield, at a camp owned by Father Jenness, and at other locations.

One of the men says that he was assaulted 60 to 70 times from 1969 to 1972, when he was 13 to 16 years old. His suit states that during some of the assaults, Father O’Connor and Bruce Mooney, an employee of the Great Trails Council of the Scouts, were present.

Mooney is charged with aiding the sexual crimes by providing one boy with drugs and alcohol.

Father Jenness, Father O’Connor and Mooney had previously been named in another lawsuit filed by Durso alleging that four brothers who grew up in Greenfield had been abused by five priests.

Durso’s current lawsuit also charges that Father Alfred Graves abused a 15-year-old boy at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Parish in Springfield from 1969 to 1971.

Durso told the Observer that his client’s parents complained about the abuse to the late Father Leo C. Shea, then pastor of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. But he acknowledged that his client does not know if Father Shea, who died in 1994, passed on the complaint to diocesan authorities.

Father Graves arrived at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in August 1970 from St. Mary Parish in Orange. He was transferred out of the parish in 1976.

Durso’s lawsuit also alleged that Connecticut resident Mary Jane Vidnansky sexually abused a 14-year-old boy when she was a Franciscan Sister of St. Joseph at Mater Dolorosa School in Holyoke. The alleged abuse occurred from 1974 to 1976.

The lawsuit against Vidnansky is the second known legal action against a woman religious in the diocese,

Accusations against two other sisters had been brought to the Diocesan Review Board by mid 2003. One case, a claim that a man had been abused by a Sister of Providence whose name the man couldn’t remember, was among cases included in last year’s settlement with the diocese.

The latest lawsuit makes several claims that 10 defendants "whose names are presently unknown to the plaintiffs" conspired with the Bishop of Springfield to aid and abet sexual abuse by clergy.

That portion of the lawsuit puzzled John Egan, the diocese’s attorney.

" I don’t know how he could assert that. The D.A. and the grand jury found no evidence of any conspiracy."

Hampden County District Attorney William Bennett launched a comprehensive investigation of the diocese’s handling of misconduct cases after Springfield Bishop Thomas. L. Dupré resigned last February after he was accused of abusing two teenagers when he was a priest.

Bennett convened a special grand jury, state police searched the bishop’s living quarters and chancery office, and the diocese turned over dozens of priests’ personnel files to the prosecutor’s office.

After a months-long investigation, the grand jury found evidence that Bishop Dupré had committed misconduct. But it found no evidence of a conspiracy by the diocese, and Bennett disbanded the grand jury, Egan noted.

Lawyers on both sides agree that Durso wanted to file the latest lawsuit before Jan. 6, 2005, the third anniversary of The Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team investigation of the mishandling of sexual abuse complaints in the Boston Archdiocese.

Under state law, adults who only recently realize the harm that childhood sexual abuse had on their lives have three years to file a civil lawsuit.

Legal observers speculate that the after Jan. 6, it will be very difficult for a plaintiff to contend that he or she did not realize that sexual involvement with a priest or religious had harmful effects, given the massive, nationwide publicity provoked by the Globe’s news coverage.

Durso also filed a lawsuit Dec. 28 on behalf of four men and a woman who allege that they were abused by six priests and a lay person in the Worcester Diocese.

Egan said that the Springfield Diocese recently reached a "tolling agreement" with Stobierski and two other attorneys with claims against the diocese. The arrangement suspends the expiration of the time limit on filing new claims so that parties can continue negotiations on an out-of-court settlement.

Stobierski lawsuits

Stobierski filed six new lawsuits Jan. 5 alleging that former priest Richard Lavigne and Fathers John Koonz, Michael Devlin, Leo Landry and Francis Lavelle abused six individuals. Two of the claimants are suing Lavigne, while the other priests are each being sued by one person in the latest round of suits. The court actions do not name the diocese because of the tolling agreement.

In his complaint against Father Lavelle, a 48-year-old man using the pseudonym Frank Doe alleges that he was also abused by the late Msgr. Timothy L. Leary, who died in 1991.

The man states that he was abused by Msgr. Leary, then the director of Cathedral High School, beginning when he was in the fourth grade.

He told The Republican newspaper Jan. 7 that the abuse stopped when, as an eighth grade parishioner at the cathedral, he walked away from the church after Msgr. Leary reneged on a promise to guarantee admission and pay his tuition at Cathedral High School.

Doe told the newspaper that Father Lavelle made the same promise.

Most 49 year olds were in the eighth grade in 1969, five years before Cathedral and other diocesan high schools instituted tuition.

Father Lavelle was ordained a priest in 1970. His first assignment was as parochial vicar of Holy Trinity in Greenfield. In 1974, he was appointed master of ceremonies to the late Springfield Bishop Christopher J. Weldon, and lived at St. Mary Parish in Westfield.

Stobierski said that his client suing Father Devlin was the individual whose accusation was judged credible by the Diocesan Review Board. He said all of his clients’ legal claims had previously been discussed with Egan.

Failla Reilly said that at least two of the accusers have entered into the review board process.

Egan told the Observer that settlements of the approximately 31 outstanding lawsuits and claims against the diocese are not likely until slow-moving negotiations between the diocese and its insurance carriers are completed.

The diocese is currently discussing how much of last year’s more than $7 million settlement will be reimbursed by insurance, and what strategy the carriers will adopt to resolve the unsettled suits, Egan noted.


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