Augusta Residents Divided on Whether to Rename Bridge

Maine Public Radio

August 7, 2008

[with audio]


Members of the Augusta City Council are asking the Maine Legislature to allow the city to rename a local bridge after allegations of decades-old child sex abuse by Father John Curran were recently examined by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland. The downtown bridge that spans the Kennebec River to connect Cony and Bridge streets was named after Curran in honor of the contributions he made to unite the Augusta community. But 32 years after his death, Curran's memory seems to be tearing the town apart.

Robert Dupuis first met the man he called Father when he was 12 years old. He views John Curran as an evil sexual predator: "John J. Curran violated my trust as well as the trust of many other children that he deceived and violated." Others like Lorraine Gilbert see Curran as a talented spiritual leader who stood up for Augusta's Franco-Americans: "This man has been dead for 32 years. He did an awful lot for the French community. He's not here to defend himself."

Both versions of Curran's legacy in the community clashed at an emotional meeting of the Augusta City Council Monday night to determine the fate of the bridge and its name. Council members say they are concerned about the investigation and findings of Bishop Joseph Malone of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland. Bishop Malone says that if Curran were alive today, the Diocese would bar him from ministering and request the Vatican remove him from the priesthood. Dupuis, now an East Lyme, Connecticut resident, says his life-changing encounter with the priest took place nearly 50 years ago: "In the summer, fall and early winter of 1961, at the age of 12, on the premises of St. Joseph Parish in Old Town, Maine, I was stalked, sexually abused by John J. Curran - the same person for whom the bridge is dedicated and named."

Curran came to Augusta at a time when the city was in transition; the paper industry was struggling and textile mills were closing. With few economic opportunities in the area in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Curran forged ties with city leaders to get advanced training and further education for workers, many of whom were of Franco-American decent. He was an early and steadfast promoter of the creation of the University of Maine at Augusta, and his ability to unite the sometimes distant English and French speaking communities in the city were honored by bestowing his name on a busy downtown bridge. None of that impresses Dupuis: "For all the good that John J. Curran did for the Franco-American community here in Augusta, the good is blemished by the harm he inflicted on me and the many other helpless children he abused. I am here today to speak on behalf of all the children abused by John J. Curran. Please accept my petition to remove John J. Curran's name from the bridge."

Lorraine Gilbert strongly disagrees, "Father Curran is not here. He's not here to speak on his behalf. People who knew him back then, most of them are no longer in the area, they've passed away. Who's his voice?" Gilbert says Dupuis' allegations are simply one person's word against a priest who cannot defend himself. She challenged his reference to other sexual abuse victims: "Who are the other victims? I don't know who the other victims are. We've heard 'We've gotta make a statement for all the victims of Father Curran.' Who are those victims? I haven't seen them. I've seen one alleged victim here. Where are the others?" St. Augustine member Gerard Rouleau is crushed by the allegations raised against the priest he loved. He says he wonders how many more blows his faith can take: "It's saddens me to hear things like this about a man that I've known so well and worked with him for all those years. I think it hurts not just St. Augustine, but it hurts the whole diocese, in fact it hurts the whole country. This mess started in Boston, that's where it first started, and all this mess was brought out. It seems like there's no end to it."

The Augusta City Council's request for legislative action to change the name of the Father Curran Bridge is expected to be taken up by lawmakers early next year.


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