Bishop Christopher Weldon’s legacy under cloud
By Anne-Gerard Flynn
June 23, 2019
|The Most Rev. Christopher J. Weldon at his installation as bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield in March 1950.|
He died at the hospital whose new facility he helped build and was buried in the cemetery created during his years as the fourth bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield.
The 27-year legacy of Bishop Christopher J. Weldon is a visible one and continues to impact many in Western Massachusetts.
It includes the construction of what is known today as Mercy Medical Center, as well as such parishes as St. Catherine of Siena and the Gate of Heaven Cemetery, where he is buried. Also, Weldon initiated the Springfield diocese’s yearly fundraising drive, now in its 60th year and called the Annual Catholic Appeal.
What Weldon accomplished through the creation of buildings and programs before his death on March 19, 1982, at the age of 76 was highlighted in his front-page obituary in The Morning Union under the banner headline, “He wanted to do more.”
A possible darker side to his legacy emerged with greater visibility Thursday after Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski met with an alleged victim of clergy sexual abuse, heard his accusations against Weldon and two priests decades ago, and filed an initial report with Hampden District Attorney Anthony D. Gulluni.
James Leydon, spokesman for the district attorney’s office, confirmed Friday that the office had received the report from the diocese.
“We continue to ask for survivors to please contact law enforcement directly to report any past incidents to our detectives,” said Leydon, a reference to a hotline established in February to receive allegations of clergy sexual abuse of minors.
The individual who met with Rozanski Thursday had gone before the diocesan Review Board June 2018, where he said he named Weldon as one of his three abusers. But the board disputed that he made a claim of direct sexual abuse by Weldon, as did the diocesan investigator who interviewed him. Three people who attended the Review Board meeting with the accuser supported his account.
“I was clear and I was heard,” said the alleged victim,” who was asked by Rozanski during the two-hour meeting Thursday if he had been abused by Weldon.
In a statement to The Republican, the alleged victim said he felt that “the bishop ‘got it.’”
“I want to tell all survivors out there that you don’t have to be silent anymore, you are not going to be hurt again. There are safe allies who want to help you. You do not have to carry the secrets of your abusers’ anymore,” said the man, who has described in graphic detail being sexually abused by Weldon and two priests, Edward Authier and Clarence Forand, both deceased.
The diocese’s statement following the meeting recognized “the courage it takes any person, including this individual, to share such a traumatic story of abuse.”
There was a 2005 lawsuit in which Weldon was named as an alleged abuser by another individual, a 1959 graduate of Cathedral High School when it was located near St. Michael’s Cathedral. The allegations found not credible by both the Springfield and Worcester dioceses, which were one diocese until 1950. The lawsuit was dropped.
The other alleged abusers named in that lawsuit include a priest who has been described as Weldon’s ecclesiastical secretary during the 1950s, as well as a priest who served as rector at St. Michael’s, where the alleged abuse was said to have occurred involving Weldon and the alleged victim in the early 1960s.
The diocese said Wednesday a claim had been filed in 2016 both with them and the Worcester diocese of sexual misconduct by Weldon, and that both dioceses found that allegation to be not credible.
There have been allegations in such publications as E.J. Fleming’s 2018 book, “Death of an Altar Boy: The Unsolved Murder of Danny Croteau and the Culture of Abuse in the Catholic Church,” that Weldon obstructed justice in the police investigation into the brutal killing of a 13-year-old Chicopee child on April 14, 1972.
Former priest Richard Lavigne, who was ordained in 1966 by Weldon, was a suspect in Croteau’s killing. But he was not publicly identified as a suspect until 1991, when he was arrested and later convicted for sexually molesting two boys. Lavigne was removed from the clerical state by the Vatican.
The diocese has also stated that files kept by Weldon, known to be a detail-oriented record keeper, were destroyed by the executor of his will.
Weldon’s qualities as a visionary who attended the Second Vatican Council held in Rome from 1962 through 1965, and as a builder during a time of growth and change within the church, are much highlighted in his obituary.
The Most Rev. Joseph Maguire — who succeeded Weldon as bishop and who faced his own allegations of mishandling priests accused of sexually abusing minors — was at Weldon’s bedside when he died. He called Weldon “an outstanding spiritual leader, an able administrator, a loving father to all members of the diocesan family and a true friend to people of all faiths.”
“It was a very long week for him and he suffered a great deal,” Maguire was quoted as saying in the obituary. “But before he lapsed into unconsciousness his last words were that he was offering his suffering for the clergy and the people of his diocese.”
The $5 million project in the late 1950s for what became Cathedral High School on Surrey Road, the $18 million for a new Mercy Hospital in the 1970s, the development in the 1950s of what is now Providence Behavioral Health Hospital in Holyoke, and the creation of the Newman Center to serve Catholic students at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst all came to fruition under Weldon.
Maguire in his tribute called him “a great rallying force in the diocese to improve the quality of services for children, the sick and the elderly.”
“He reached out to the alienated, to people who needed to be brought back to more active membership in the church by encouraging spiritual programs,” said Maguire of Weldon.
The Most Rev. Leo O’Neil, then the auxiliary bishop in Springfield, who was ordained as a priest by Weldon in 1956, called him at the time of his death a “sensitive, compassionate thoughtful man, a man of dynamic energy.”
According to his obituary, Weldon, who resigned as bishop in 1977 shortly after having a heart attack, stood with clergy of other faith in addressing racial tensions in the city, and was cited for his service to the United Way, Red Cross and Boy Scouts.
In 1978, he received the Order of William Pynchon Award, named for Springfield’s founder, for his leadership efforts.
Born in New York, where he attended public schools, Weldon studied for six years at the Petit Seminaire in Montreal and then entered St. Joseph’s Seminary, in Yonkers, New York, to prepare for the priesthood in 1924.
Weldon was ordained a priest in 1929 by Patrick Cardinal Hayes at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where two decades later he would be consecrated a bishop by Francis Cardinal Spellman of the Archdiocese of New York on March 24, 1950. He served 16 months as a chaplain during World War II and held the rank of lieutenant commander aboard the Navy escort carrier USS Guadalcanal, whose captain called him a “true ‘father’ to all the crew.”
After the war Weldon was named master of ceremonies to Spellman, with whom he traveled throughout Europe. In 1947 Spellman appointed Weldon executive director of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of New York, which administered $30 million annually.
In 1949 Weldon had a private audience with Pope Pius XII. Weldon’s appointment as bishop by the pope was announced on Feb. 1, 1950, and he was installed as bishop here by then-Archbishop Richard Cushing of Boston.
Weldon’s March 24, 1982, funeral at St. Michael’s Cathedral was held on the 32nd anniversary of his ordination as bishop.