Local Prayer Group Had Suspended Priest As 'Spiritual Director'

By Father Bill Pomerleau and Terence Hegarty
November 2, 2007

SPRINGFIELD A recently confirmed report that a priest long forbidden to function as a cleric had been heavily involved with a local private prayer group shows the difficulties individual Catholics can run into when they support unofficial spiritual groups, say officials in several dioceses.

And it illustrates the difficulty church authorities have tracking the activities of a small number of priests who continue to defy orders not to exercise their ministry.

In early September, the Diocese of Springfield was contacted by Vic Valois, a Springfield resident and parishioner of St. Mary Parish in Longmeadow and a former member of the locally-based Seeds of Hope organization. Valois reported that Father John J. Szantyr had been the group's longstanding spiritual mentor and occasional sacramental celebrant.

Father Szantyr, 76, is allegedly a repeated sexual offender with victims in more than one diocese.

He has been forbidden to minister in any way or to publicly present himself as a priest since being removed from ministry by the Diocese of Worcester, Mass., in 1988. Yet, at least until recently, he has continued to wear clerical clothing and refer to himself as "Father" in direct violation of the canonical restrictions against clerics who face credible charges of sexual abuse of a minor.

Valois and other disgruntled former members of the prayer and publishing group said that Father Szantyr had repeatedly heard confessions and occasionally celebrated Mass for the group in Springfield.

When diocesan officials asked for confirmation of the accusation, William Fortin, a member of the prayer group who had videotaped several Seeds of Hope activities, provided the diocese, in early September, with a video recording of Father Szantyr presiding at Mass in a private home on Garland Street in the Forest Park neighborhood.

Springfield Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell "immediately sent a letter to Father Szantyr stating that he remains absolutely forbidden to celebrate Mass anywhere in the Diocese of Springfield, publicly or privately, or to undertake any sacramental functions, or to minister in any shape, form or fashion to anyone subject to this diocese," a diocesan spokesman told inquiring media outlets.

A similar letter was also sent to the suspended priest by Worcester Bishop Robert J. McManus.

Valois had sent copies of the videotaped Mass to television stations in Worcester and Springfield, and to Worcester Voice, an Internet Web site run by victims advocate Mary Jean.

Jean has played a leading role in questioning Father Szantyr's claim that he is too infirm and mentally incompetent to stand trial on child sexual abuse charges in Worcester. Her group hired a private investigator to trail the priest, who made a recent court appearance in a wheelchair.

Fortin's videotape dates from 2000 to 2002, according to Valois, which may diminish its relevance to the debate about Father Szantyr's current medical state. But its appearance led Bishop McDonnell to write to Seeds of Hope director, Neil Harrington Jr., informing him that Father Szantyr was prohibited from celebrating sacraments in the diocese.

Bishop McDonnell told The Catholic Observer that Harrington called his office back and "thanked us for the information."

"There is no way we at the Seeds of Hope understood this Fr. John had his faculties taken away," said Harrington in an interview with the Observer. He acknowledged receiving a letter from Bishop McDonnell on Sept. 30 which was the first time he was aware of Father Szantyr's situation.

"It was disheartening to us, we would never do anything against the church." Harrington stated. He went on to clarify that "Father Szantyr hasn't taken part in any Seeds of Hope ministry for probably five years."

Shortly after receiving the bishop's letter he responded with a phone call to the bishop's office in which he stated, "In no way would Father John do anything in our home again."

Clergy know that all priests need faculties, or authorization to minister, before they can exercise any priestly ministry. Faculties are routinely granted to a priest upon his ordination by his diocesan bishop or religious superior.

Under church law, a priest may minister anywhere in the world once he has received faculties from his own bishop or superior, unless they have been restricted or revoked by a bishop or superior. If his faculties are suspended by his own bishop, he loses the ability to function as a priest anywhere in the world.

For decades, U.S. bishops routinely used the national bishops' conference to inform their peers about problematic priests who may attempt to illicitly minister in another diocese. Well before the emergence of the sexual abuse crisis in the early 1990s, bishops routinely checked the status of incoming priests to whom they gave formal assignments in their dioceses.

Since the implementation of the 2003 so-called "Dallas Essential Norms" to prevent sexual misconduct by clergy, diocesan routines have been further tightened. Clergy in the Diocese of Springfield were told that any outside priest wanting to minister for more than two weeks or live in a local rectory in the diocese must first undergo a background check, and be given specific faculties for the diocese.

But none of these procedures can work when lay people fail to inquire about an unfamiliar priest whom they invite to private religious functions.

Patricia Finn McManamy, director of counseling, prevention and victim services for the Springfield Diocese, told the Observer that the diocese has not received any misconduct allegations against Father Szantyr.

However, she stressed that her office needs the help of lay Catholics to check on the backgrounds of priests who may have faced allegations elsewhere.

"All those who are in a position to invite a priest from another diocese to participate in Mass, prayer groups or similar activities, should be aware of his status in terms of 'Essential Norms,'" said McManamy.

McManamy urged anyone with questions about whether a priest should be celebrating sacraments or is in good standing, to call the chancery or her office.

The background of Father Szantyr was known outside western Massachusetts, particularly in Long Island, N.Y., Waterbury, Conn., and Worcester, since August 2002, when Richard Chesnis of Worcester first publicly alleged that his son had been sexually abused at Our Lady of Czestochowa Parish in Worcester.

Since then, mounting accusations against the priest have also been extensively chronicled on Internet Web sites run by victims' advocacy groups.

Yet until recently, few of those participating in the weekly Seeds of Hope prayer meetings in Springfield thought to question the background of the priest who Valois said had been called the "heart" of the "spiritual center of the world." Valois also contends that Father Szantyr was regularly referred to as the "spiritual director of the Seeds of Hope."

Father Szantyr's ongoing sacramental activities only became known to local lay Catholics and diocesan officials when members of the secretive leadership group of Seeds of Hope began to question his status.

A native of Waterbury, Conn., Father Szantyr entered the Stockbridge-based Marians of the Immaculate Conception order, and was ordained a priest of that community in 1957. He was assigned to the Marian Fathers novitiate at Eden Hill in Stockbridge.

In 1964, he befriended 11-year-old Donald H. Nohs of Copiague, Long Island. Before long, the priest from New England began to sexually abuse the boy, the now 54-year-old man told the Observer.

Nohs claims that he realized in 1999 that he had been abused several times by Father Szantyr from approximately 1965 to 1969. Nohs told the Observer, that four or five other boys had been abused by Father Szantyr. Nohs has been recognized as an abuse victim by the Diocese of Rockville Centre.

By the end of the 1960s, Father Szantyr was no longer identified as a Marian in the Official Catholic Directory, an annual reference work which lists nearly every diocesan and religious priest living or ministering in the United States.

Father Szantyr was hired in 1972 as a religion teacher at Sacred Heart High School, a then-parish run institution in Waterbury, said Msgr. Gerard C. Schmitz, vicar for priests for the Archdiocese of Hartford. Msgr. Schmitz said that no one has ever brought an allegation regarding Father Szantry to his archdiocese.

In 1980, Father Szantyr was accepted into the Diocese of Worcester after leaving his Waterbury job. Approximately six years later, he allegedly abused Michael Chesnis at a Diocese of Worcester parish.

In several 2002 press accounts and a subsequent civil lawsuit against the Worcester Diocese, Richard Chesnis said that his son, Michael, told him of his abuse shortly after it occurred, prompting him to immediately go to the authorities.

The elder Chesnis claims that after he and his now-former wife filed a police report, they were dissuaded from filing criminal charges by church officials and from former Worcester County District Attorney John J. Conte.

Conte has denied meeting with Chesnis, but later re-opened the investigation and charged Father Szantyr in 2003 with three counts of indecent assault and battery on a child under 14.

Msgr. Thomas J. Sullivan, chancellor of the Worcester Diocese, told the Observer that, "Father Szantyr's ministry ended the day the first victim came to Bishop (Timothy J.) Harrington. He has been without faculties since then."

Valois said he first met Father Szantyr in 1994, when the priest began to attend the Tuesday evening prayer meetings being held at the Enfield, Conn., home of Neil Harrington Sr. By then, he had been listed as "absent/on leave" from the Worcester Diocese in five yearly editions of the Official Catholic Directory.

Neil Harrington Jr., a participant in what was originally a group affiliated with the Cenacle prayer movement founded by the Italian mystic Father Stefano Gobbi, was claiming that he was receiving messages and appearances from the Blessed Virgin Mary at his parents' home. Beginning in 1997, Neil Harrington Jr. began to claim that St. Francis of Assisi had been relating messages to him through dreams.

During the mid-1990s, various media outlets, including the Observer went to the Harrington home to report on various alleged supernatural occurrences in Enfield. Harrington and many of the 150 to 300 regular Cenacle participants reported seeing Harrington's small Rosa Mystica statue cry tears of oil on several occasions. The strong smell of roses, even in winter, rainbows appearing on sunny days and a dancing sun were all reported to have occurred at the Enfield home. Many have also claimed that numerous physical cures are attributable to the Enfield Cenacle activities.

During a subsequent 2000 interview with the Observer, Harrington never mentioned the involvement of Father Szantyr with his group, which relocated to Springfield in 1998.

According to Valois, the priest had been a faithful participant in the Seeds of Hope prayer meetings, since the early 1990s, but was conspicuously absent the evening in 1995 when a commission from the Archdiocese of Hartford came to investigate the alleged occurrences in Enfield. Nor was he visible when any media outlet visited Enfield.

Valois and other former members charge that Father Szantyr, who does not grant media interviews, is also the leading figure in a prayer group that meets at the Wolcott, Conn., home of Anthony Russo.

Valois charged that, unlike in Springfield where Harrington is the self-proclaimed visionary, Father Szantyr claims to be the visionary in the Connecticut group.

Seeds of Hope dissidents believe that Father Szantyr has apparently not celebrated the sacraments in the Springfield Diocese since 2006, when Valois and others began to question his continued involvement with Neil Harrington Jr., whom they accuse of a variety of financial, theological and personal irregularities.

Critics of Father Szantyr believe that the public should be further warned about a priest who continuously tries to involve himself in official and non-official Catholic groups.

They cite the June 1992 edition of The Visitation, the newsletter of the church-approved Fraternity of Priests, Inc., which has a photograph of Father Szantyr in a Roman collar with several active Connecticut priests.

Msgr. Sullivan, who coordinates clergy misconduct issues for the Worcester Diocese, told the Observer that Father Szantyr has been a longtime problem for him.

"I remember getting phone calls from people in dioceses in the South where (approved Worcester-based healing minister) Eileen George was appearing. They asked if this priest who wanted to say Mass while she was in town was okay. I've always said, 'Absolutely not.'"

"I don't know how many more times we can tell this guy what he can't do. This will have been going on for 20 years in January," Msgr. Sullivan said.


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