Anguish, Outcry, Support
The Case of Popular Worcester Priest

By Dianne Williamson
Telegram & Gazette (Massachusetts)
March 19, 2002

For all the anguish and outcry, for all the support offered to a popular Worcester priest who allegedly molested a young boy during drunken parties for youths on Cape Cod, one response is notably missing from the Worcester diocese and the cleric who now stands accused: denial.

As in, these claims are untrue. As in, the Rev. Lee F. Bartlett did not do these terrible things and will fight to restore his reputation. When accused of behavior that could destroy a career and shatter the faith of loyal supporters, what innocent man would not cry from the rooftops that he has been wronged?

Instead, as disbelieving parishioners struggle to reconcile their love and respect for Father Bartlett with allegations of child abuse, the priest promptly took leave from his pastorship at Sacred Heart of Jesus parish and retreated to his Cape home in Eastham. The diocese, meanwhile, released a statement requesting prayers "for all those who have faced upheaval in their lives due to child abuse," even though many of these victims could have used more than prayers- and a lot less church cover-up over the years- as they faced belligerent and hostile diocesan lawyers.

Yesterday, I spoke briefly to Father Bartlett by telephone from his home in Eastham and told him that I had received much feedback from supporters who refuse to believe that the beloved priest was involved in any wrongdoing.

"That's nice to hear," he said.

I asked if he wished to deny the allegations recounted in Sunday's column by Joseph P. Cote, 38, who said Father Bartlett sexually molested him at least three times in the 1970s, beginning when Mr. Cote was 13. Mr. Cote said he visited the priest about two dozen times at his Eastham home, where Father Bartlett would entertain young boys by plying them with liquor and showing X-rated movies on his projector.

"I'm not going on the record either way," Father Bartlett said. "That will be up to the bishop and up to my lawyer, if it gets that far."

I also spoke yesterday to a California architect named Kevin Donnelly, 36, who was raised in Leominster. He initially contacted me with the request that I pass his name on to Mr. Cote so that Mr. Cote would know "he is by no means alone with this." After further conversations, Mr. Donnelly agreed to go public with his own experience.

He said he was 15 years old in 1982 when he spent a weekend at the priest's home in Eastham with four other boys. He said Father Bartlett "provided a lot of alcohol and encouraged the 'Greek Olympics,' " an event that involved the boys running naked through the neighborhood.

"At some point I went to lie down and Father Bartlett climbed into the bed with me," Mr. Donnelly said. "I said 'no,' got up and left. ... What struck me after reading Mr. Cote's account was that (Father Bartlett's) actions appear to be so premeditated. It sort of reeks of a pattern."

Understandably, supporters of Father Bartlett are having a hard time believing that a man who has done so much good could possess another side that he allegedly kept hidden from parishioners. He has served as a strong advocate for the south Worcester area and is widely credited with restoring a floundering parish.

"This man has done more for the Cambridge Street area than the T&G, the city or the state has in the last five years," wrote Don Mason of Winchendon. "Guilty or innocent, he deserves due process and not the tripe Mr. Cote has dreamed up and that you seem to want to broadcast in your own attempt for notoriety. Sleep well knowing that you have weakened a community this day."

Wrote another supporter, Thomas J. Fitzgibbons of Auburn: "I spent a great deal of time alone with Rev. Bartlett as a child and young adult and what I received from him was his guidance and his time. I pledge my full support for the Rev. Lee F. Bartlett and I publicly denounce any and all allegations of sexual misconduct against him."

On Saturday, Bishop Daniel P. Reilly sat for an interview and spoke of an agreement reached with the district attorney, in which the diocese will turn over the names of priests accused over the years of sexual abuse, but the names will not be made public.

Since the statute of limitations likely has expired in many of these cases, the possibility exists that the public will not learn the identity of pedophile priests. But the deal is good for the bishop and good for District Attorney John J. Conte, who won't have to wage a public fight against the church to which he belongs.

"We're following the law," said Bishop Reilly, who has been named in more than 30 lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct by priests under his charge in Providence and Norwich, Conn. "And I don't think we have to go beyond that."

What a rousing call to moral action. I can only imagine the potential for inspiration if a priest issued a similar challenge from the pulpit: go forth, and do what is legally required. And surely you cannot fault diocesan leaders for not abiding by law: When confronted with allegations of child abuse, they hired an attorney so skilled at lawyerly intimidation that he would be publicly rebuked by a judge for his stonewalling and savage grilling of victims.

Mr. Donnelly- who, like Mr. Cote, was initially hesitant to come forward- said he is not trying to destroy Father Bartlett's reputation by speaking out now. Rather, he wants to encourage other alleged victims to tell their stories.

"People do good things and bad things and they make mistakes," he said. "This is not about trying to erase the good things that Father Bartlett has done. This is about trying to stop him from doing bad things."

I have nothing but respect for people such as Joseph Cote, Kevin Donnelly and many other brave victims who continue to face skepticism and even wrath by naming their alleged abusers. Their courage should serve as an inspiration to those who have chosen the reputation of the church over truth and morality, the same people who, when faced with opportunities to promote leadership and conciliation, now insist that their only obligation is to follow the law.


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