Group Blasts Diocese for Handling of Sex Abuse Complaints

By Steve Urbon
February 21, 2008

FALL RIVER — The Diocese of Fall River has a brief answer for critics who are demanding that it step up efforts to find possible victims of a pedophile priest: Everything on your list has already been done.

SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, sent Bishop George Coleman a letter this week declaring that, "in the past few weeks, your staff has pretended to be powerless, blamed the victim and done virtually nothing to reach out to possible victims of and witnesses to alleged sex crimes" committed by the Rev. Maurice Lebel.

Rev. Lebel was removed from duty in December in Maine after a complaint of sexual abuse of a minor.

Previously, as a Jesuit priest, he served in the Fall River diocese as rector for the Jesuits' residence at Bishop Connolly High School and as a counselor for Catholic Social Services in Fall River and Attleboro.

David Clohessy, national director of SNAP, said "private conversations that the staff has had with victims and their loved ones" convinced them that the diocese had been lax in its pursuit of possible victims of Rev. Lebel.

In the letter, SNAP demanded the bishop make announcements from pulpits and elsewhere and urge victims to contact not only church officials but also the police; urge victims to seek counseling from independent sources, and use the Web site, newspaper and newsletters to spread the word.

"These steps would help everyone involved to learn the full truth about and recover from these traumatic events," said the letter, signed by three top SNAP officials, including Mr. Clohessy.

John Kearns, spokesman for the diocese, produced both a press release and a letter to parishioners dated Dec. 12, 2007, and distributed at weekend Masses explaining the issue of Rev. Lebel and his background in Fall River. It supplied the phone numbers not only of Catholic Social Services but of the District Attorney's Office.

He said the information has also been publicized on the diocese Web site and in its newspaper, The Anchor.

It was "in accord with our charter and our policies," said Mr. Kearns. The result was two calls, both from supporters of Rev. Lebel.

He said Bishop Coleman received the SNAP letter Tuesday and will soon reply in detail. Neither side said there had been any other contact between the two in the matter.

Mr. Clohessy said that, in general, Catholic dioceses have responded "belatedly and grudgingly, with a bare minimum of steps toward child safety" in abuse cases. Then-Bishop Sean P. O'Malley, now cardinal and archbishop of Boston, was "a tad better than some," he said.

Bishop O'Malley arrived on the scene in Fall River in 1993 in the midst of the pedophilia scandal involving the late former priest James Porter. He was generally credited with resolving the scandal through meetings with victims, outreach including counseling, and legal settlements.

"He clearly works harder and is smarter than most bishops in regard to public relations," said Mr. Clohessy.

"To be perfectly honest, at this juncture, the expectations bar for bishops is so phenomenally low, and Catholics are so disillusioned by the complicity and duplicity of the hierarchy, that if a bishop takes even the most minimal step above business as usual it is met with great sighs of relief," said Mr. Clohessy.

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