Judge Orders Diocese to Release All Data

By Mike Stanton
The Providence Journal
January 18, 2008

[See also Stanton's previous feature article on the Providence abuse files with Tom Mooney, as well as a filing by Bishop Tobin on them.]

PROVIDENCE — An exasperated Rhode Island judge ordered the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence yesterday to provide much more information regarding allegations of sexual misconduct against dozens of priests going back nearly four decades.

The ruling came during a three-hour hearing in which Superior Court Judge Nettie C. Vogel referred to retired Providence Bishop Louis E. Gelineau as a "see-no-evil, hear-no-evil type of guy, apparently," in his handling of complaints against a Woonsocket priest in the late 1970s.

Vogel is presiding over bitterly contested lawsuits by three men — Marc G. Banville, Donald Leighton and Christopher Young — who say that they were molested by three different priests years ago, and that church leaders have engaged in a pattern of covering up allegations of abuse. The suits are the last remaining from dozens of cases that ended with a historic settlement in 2002 and subsequent mediation — and they have gone further than the earlier cases in prying open the church's secret archives documenting what its leaders knew and did.

Vogel rejected claims by the plaintiffs' lawyers that the diocese, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin and his lawyers have committed fraud by deliberately withholding information the judge had previously ordered turned over. But she put the diocese on notice that it has 30 days to produce the additional material — and no more "gamesmanship."

Previously, the judge had ordered the diocese turn over any notice it had received of first- or second-degree child molestation or third-degree sexual assault dating back to 1971, and the church had turned over information on 83 priests. Yesterday, confronted with examples of alleged sexual bad behavior that had not been included, Vogel said that the diocese had complied with the letter of the law, but not the spirit. Consequently, she broadened her order to include a wider range of inappropriate sexual behavior, which could involve even more priests.

Vogel zeroed in on a 1996 psychiatric evaluation commissioned by the diocese of one of the accused priests named in the pending lawsuits, the former Rev. Roland Lepire. In the report, Lepire recounts dealings he said he had with then-Bishop Gelineau after parents complained about his improper conduct with boys in 1979 while a priest at St. Aloysius Church in Woonsocket.

The report says that Lepire acknowledged misconduct to Gelineau, and that the police agreed not to press charges "with the understanding" that the priest would receive therapy and be transferred.

"Father states that the Bishop was understanding and transferred him," the report says. ". . . however, within eight months of being in the new assignment, Father Lepire reports that he touched four twelve year old boys, one time each, over the period of one month . . . Father states he did not understand his own behavior; consequently he approached the Bishop and admitted his wrongdoing. He states that the Bishop removed him from the parish. . ."

Lepire subsequently wound up at St. Matthew in Central Falls, where he allegedly molested Banville, one of the current plaintiffs.

Gelineau, who denies Lepire's account, told the court in a written response last year that he had only a "vague" recollection of complaints of "inappropriate" behavior involving "horseplay or wrestling" — but nothing of a "sexual nature."

Carl DeLuca, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers, told Vogel yesterday that he discovered the psychiatrist's report in the diocese's files last year, after the church lost a court fight to keep its secret archive on priests closed. But he said the diocese had not provided the information earlier, in response to court-ordered interrogatories asking it to describe every accusation leaders had received against priests. And that, and other information, made him wonder what else the church might be wrongly holding back.

Vogel demanded to know why the diocese had "skirted" the information in Lepire's psychiatric report in its discovery responses.

Max Wistow, the diocese's lawyer, said that the church had not violated the judge's orders because she had limited discovery to allegations of first- or second-degree child molestation or third-degree sexual assault.

"This is fondling a boy's genitals," shot back Vogel.

"What age?" responded Wistow.

"Four 12-year-old boys," the judge responded.

Later, alluding to Bishop Gelineau's written response, Vogel asked, "He didn't consider that notice of sexual misconduct? . . . What's horseplay? I'm baffled. Parents are going to the Woonsocket police over horseplay? . . . He might look very weak on cross-examination if he wants to suggest to a jury that such information was considered by him to be merely horseplay, that it was sufficient to transfer the priest to a larger parish, that the Woonsocket police were involved, and that he didn't see the need to pursue it further."

Gelineau, said Vogel, was "a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil type of guy, apparently, as it related to this incident."

Wistow and James Murphy, the church's lawyers, argued that the diocese did not have to include the information from the report in its responses, because it had already provided information regarding an unrelated accusation against Lepire in 1995, which prompted the psychiatric report.

Vogel said that she didn't see evidence of fraud by the diocese's lawyers, but noted that they had perhaps been too "careful" in advocating for their clients by framing their responses too narrowly. She therefore broadened her prior order that the diocese produce allegations of first- or second-degree child molestation or third-degree sexual assault to avoid any such confusion or "gamesmanship" in the future.

Now, Vogel said, the diocese has 30 days to turn over all information showing its knowledge of any allegations against priests, including complaints about a priest "engaging in horseplay, touching, physical contact — in other words, if somebody complained about a priest, and everyone was being delicate and there was no paper trial about 'fondling genitals,' then no one can hide behind that delicacy."

Timothy Conlon, another plaintiffs' lawyer, asked the judge to include notice of "skinny dipping" since one of the other plaintiffs in the case has alleged such activity involving another accused priest.

"Yes, yes," replied Vogel. "Any nudity."

Later, Vogel asked if the church had provided notice of allegations that another priest had fondled a boy's inner thigh and committed "unnatural acts" with another youth. DeLuca said that it hadn't. Wistow explained that that was because church lawyers had determined that the boy in one instance was over the age as defined by the applicable law.

Vogel called that another example of the church complying with the letter, but not the spirit, of the law. She said that the church now must turn over any allegations involving any minors up to the age of 18.

"I never intended for this type of information to have been other than disclosed," said Vogel.

DeLuca also complained that the diocese has withheld relevant material based on improper privileges — such as settlements in other lawsuits and documents ordered sealed in other cases. Vogel said that neither privilege was valid, and ordered the church to turn over the material.

She urged the diocese to "err in favor of disclosure" when it comes to blacking out names of parties that the plaintiffs argued was done excessively.

Diocesan lawyer James Murphy asked Vogel about protecting the identities of schoolchildren whose names were attached to a letter involving a complaint against another priest for assigning "inappropriate homework" to parochial students in a seventh-grade Family Life class. Vogel asked the nature of the homework, and was told that it involved bringing in "sexually explicit photos."

Then the children were not innocent bystanders, said Vogel, but potential victims — the names should stay.

The judge noted that the discovery material will be sealed from public view, and used only to develop evidence that may be admissible at trial. Initially, the judge gave the diocese two weeks, then made it one month. That may not be much time to go through voluminous records — it took church lawyers months to comb through records to produce the more limited information involving 83 priests.

But the diocese can get it done, said Vogel, even it involves hiring more people.

"I want to try these cases," said Vogel. "I'll give you one month — 30 days."



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