Gelineau Won't Testify in Priest's Trial
A Judge Rules That Statements Made to the Bishop by a Priest Charged with Rape Are Confidential under State Law

By Laura Meade Kirk
Providence Journal-Bulletin
June 7, 1997

A judge yesterday rejected the attorney general's attempt to force testimony from Roman Catholic Bishop Louis E. Gelineau in the upcoming trial of a priest who is charged with raping a parishioner 25 years ago.

Superior Court Judge Thomas H. Needham, in a landmark ruling, said that statements made by the accused priest, Alfred R. Desrosiers, to Bishop Gelineau and another priest are protected by state law.

It was the first time that a Rhode Island court has ruled on the state law that prohibits priests and other clergy from testifying about statements made to them in confidence.

The prosecutor, Jack McMahon, had argued that Father Desrosiers' statements to the bishop were made in the context of an employee's relationship with a supervisor, and not as part of a spiritual relationship.

But Needham disagreed.

"There was a reasonable basis for Father Desrosiers to conclude that what he said to the bishop in response to the bishop's questioning, that such a disclosure was made in confidence," Needham said, in a ruling that took him about 90 minutes to explain.

Father Desrosiers is accused of sexually assaulting Cynthia M. Lewis, now 40, of Lincoln, when he was assistant pastor of St. Joan of Arc Church in Cumberland in 1972. She didn't file a complaint against him until 1993, when he was pastor of Our Lady of Victories church in Woonsocket.

That's when she called Bishop Gelineau's office to report that she had been sexually abused as a teenager.

Bishop Gelineau confronted Father Desrosiers about the allegations, and referred him to the Rev. Normand Godin, as a spiritual adviser, Needham explained in his ruling. Father Desrosiers was immediately suspended from his priestly duties.

Bishop Gelineau and Father Godin later gave police and prosecutors statements about their conversations with Father Desrosiers. Prosecutors have argued in court that those statements indicate that Father Desrosiers had acknowledged his sexual relationship with Lewis.

Those statements were presented to a grand jury that indicted Father Desrosiers in 1995 on one count of sexual assault.

But when Bishop Gelineau and Father Godin were subpoenaed to testify against Father Desrosiers during a pretrial hearing in March, they contended they were protected from violating the confidentiality of their conversations under canon and state law.

The statements by Bishop Gelineau and Father Godin cannot be used as evidence in the trial unless they testify.

Needham did question yesterday why the two clergymen apparently waived the canon law on confidentiality when they initially talked to police and prosecutors.

Bishop Gelineau did not attend yesterday's hearing.

His lawyer, William Murphy, said afterward, "I'm gratified that the court has recognized and is enforcing areas of religious freedom and religious liberty."

Father Desrosiers' lawyer, James T. McCormick, said he also was pleased with the court's finding, both for his client and for the bishop. "It will make his job and other clergy's jobs a lot easier," McCormick said. "He won't have to worry about being subpoenaed into court every time he talks to somebody."

IN ANOTHER blow to the prosecution's case yesterday, Needham also ruled in favor of a defense motion to bar testimony at trial from another woman who claims that Father Desrosiers sexually assaulted her.

The prosecution had sought to use her testimony to show a pattern of behavior. But, citing a recent Supreme Court ruling in another sexual assault case, Needham said the woman could not testify.

No charges were ever brought in connection with the woman's allegation. McMahon said after court that by the time she came forward the statute of limitations had expired.

Lewis, who was in court yesterday, had tears in her eyes after the judge issued his ruling. She declined comment.

McMahon said he will consult with Atty. Gen. Jeffrey B. Pine before deciding whether to appeal.

The criminal case and a civil suit that Lewis has filed against Father Desrosiers and the bishop are based on "recovered memory" of the alleged assaults, an aspect of the criminal case that is also being challenged.

Needham has yet to rule on that challenge.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.