Editorial: Justice for clergy abuse victims remains a fight

Daily Hampshire Gazette
April 5, 2016

The Springfield Diocese took the unusual step last week of adding the name of a dead priest to a shameful list: Catholic clergy against whom “credible” allegations of child sexual abuse have been made.

The step came with word that the diocese just settled — for an undisclosed sum — a civil lawsuit brought in 2013 by a Chesterfield man. The suit alleged that this same priest, the late Rev. Paul Archambault, sexually abused the plaintiff for nearly four years, starting around 2006 when the victim was 13. The abuse occurred nearly 50 times in various locations, the man and his attorney claimed, from a Northampton home to a Chicopee parish to a Catholic shrine in Vermont. Confronted later, in 2011, the priest shot himself in the head at age 42 inside a closet at the Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Parish rectory.

All are sorrowful facts — for the Archambault family and all who loved this troubled man and for those he apparently subjected to inappropriate physical and sexual contact.

That’s about as much as most people can bear to hear. This settlement can seem like old news. It comes years after a landslide of legal actions against the Catholic Church. But protecting vulnerable people from sexual abuse demands rigor and attention. And that’s why we think this tragic case deserves closer consideration, in a spirit of moving this issue toward understanding and reconciliation.

We are aware that Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski is pledging his “fervent resolve” to attack the problem. He said in a statement last week he will “continue to address this terrible plague upon our church through our ongoing screening, education and awareness efforts. We must never let our guard down; rather we must all remain vigilant.”

The bishop directed that word of Archambault’s conduct be brought to parishes where the priest served. He apologized to all of Archambault’s victims, urged people aware of abuse to call a hotline (800-842-9055) and asked for forgiveness. We applaud Bishop Rozanski for his willingness to speak so forthrightly and publicly against abuse. Openness is crucial to rebuilding trust. It demands he continue to be a champion of truth, even as new reports of abuse come in, perhaps as a result of his public appeal last week. Leading the diocese forward demands that the church be held to account for how its leaders handled suspected clergy abuse in the past — and that takes us back to the Chesterfield man’s lawsuit.

The lawsuit and recent public statements by the diocese shed light on how allegations move, or fail to move, toward justice. In a 2007 letter to former Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell, the Diocesan Review Board had written that its members had met with Archambault after two people, one a clinical social worker, raised questions about his conduct. It wasn’t Archambault’s first meeting with the board about inappropriate behavior — and came at the start of the Chesterfield youth’s abuse.

His lawsuit would later claim that McDonnell and the diocese failed to protect him “from the criminal and tortious acts of Archambault at a time when (they) knew, or should have known, that Archambault posed a danger of harm.”

Church leaders did indeed know that Archambault posed a risk to children, because their own Diocesan Review Board had told them so in 2007, writing that its members “felt very strongly that Fr. Paul appears confused about his status as a priest.” They recommended that he be monitored by a “mature priest who would be a mentor to him regarding boundary violations.” The 2007 letter from the review board ended with this recommendation for Archambault: “The Board also believes he needs to be more cognizant of the Diocese’s Code of Conduct and Policy.”

Strong words from an internal review board, but they failed to halt the ongoing abuse now accepted to have occurred.

The diocese acknowledges that it received “complaints” about Archambault years before he was ordained in 2005 — near the height of attention to clergy abuse. The diocese hired an investigator and alerted the state police, but those inquiries resulted in no findings of misconduct by Archambault. And yet there was misconduct, we now know. The priest was assigned in 2008 to a church in Hampden, where he was supposed to receive guidance by a priest. Archambault needed to be “monitored,” the review board had warned. Given that the Chesterfield youth’s abuse continued, it is hard to believe that oversight was adequate. The diocesan spokesman said Archambault “had additional steps he had to take. … He faced extra scrutiny before being ordained. It wasn’t just a rubber stamp.”

While the spokesman wasn’t willing to detail the actions the priest was supposed to take, he did feel free to note a step the Chesterfield victim failed to take. He said this victim never directly reported his abuse to church officials. As the spokesman told the Gazette, “I don’t think we ever asserted (there) wasn’t a red flag. With hindsight being 20-20, our difficulty then and throughout this process is lack of willingness for people who had concrete information to step forward to share it with us or law enforcement. What you had was a lot of concerns, but not a lot of substance we could’ve acted upon.”

There is some truth to that. One of the reasons that clergy abuse remained hidden for so long is that many victims were reluctant to challenge the authority of priests — and the church. It is well-established that victims sometimes need years of perspective to gain insight into their abuse. That’s particularly true when a victim’s family is closely involved with the church and knows and respects its priests, as was the case with the Chesterfield man.

There were red flags, as the spokesman acknowledges. By now, these sorts of warnings should be enough to make the Springfield diocese work much harder to determine that a priest is above reproach. It needs to demonstrate that it will fight to prevent abuse before it happens. As the bishop said in his statement last week, “In this Year of Mercy, our church seeks forgiveness for the past actions of clergy as well as our failure to adequately address past abuse claims.”

For that reason, we find it troubling that when asked why it took the diocese three years for the Chesterfield man’s abuse to be deemed credible, the spokesman offered a complicated rationale that seemed to place blame with victims not doing enough: “Generally speaking ... (if) the alleged victim can provide a detailed enough description of the individual and the events, we will find it to be a credible allegation,” he said in an email to the Gazette. What if a victim, because of trauma, age or the passing of time, is shaky on details?

Meantime, an advocate for the Chesterfield man says he met with church officials and raised questions about the decision to ordain Archambault despite reports of his inappropriate contact with children.

The diocese’s spokesman last week downplayed those meetings, saying they were “pastoral” and not considered part of the correct process. “We have had better outcomes for these difficult meetings when the process is followed. Therefore, by all accounts the meeting did not go well in no small part we believe because it didn’t utilize the existing process.”

These explanations hint at a church that remains on the defensive, more inclined to fend off lawsuits than seek the kind of healing promised in Bishop Rozanski’s recent statements.

To honor the bishop’s vow to address past abuse claims, the church needs to put mercy ahead of money.


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